In 2006, one of my closest friends, Captain Richard Holmes, was killed whilst serving with the Paratroopers in Iraq. In the July before I had been best man at his wedding, and in that following March I stood in the same church delivering the eulogy at his funeral. The impact Richard’s passing had on his family and friends was shattering. At the same time, we had to reconcile our grief with the understanding that Richard loved his job and there was nothing that any of us could have done to stop him.
It was a couple of years later that I found myself picking up an old copy of Henry V. It was play that I had studied years ago at school, and my scrawling schoolboys pencil annotations covered the margins of every page. Initially, I had no strong desire to bring it to the stage. I read more through a curiosity to see how my older self would respond to a text I had slavishly studied all those years before.
Gradually, as Shakespeare’s portrait of King Henry unfurled, the resonance with my friend began to come to the fore. King Henry seemed to have that headstrong self-assuredness that had defined Richard Holmes. Alongside a wicked sense of humour, and joy in making mischief, these two men seemed to share a single-mindedness that drove them to fight for their country on a foreign shore.
King Henry believes that it is his destiny to retake the French lands that had once been under English rule. Through military force he hopes to effect a long-lasting peace between the two countries, and unite them in the struggle against Muslim forces in Constantinople and Jerusalem.
For Richard, serving in the army was his vocation. He believed that he could make the world the better place by serving in the military. I once questioned him about this, as part of a series of interviews we held through his first few years in the forces. He answered, “I understand the irony. Fighting for peace. But that is what the army has always meant to me. I always associate the army with peace. Not war. Peace.”
Through this pro wanted to examine and explore how we fight, how much trust we put in our leaders, what happens to those men who take part in the battle and the effect it has on our society.
It was this that led to the vision of the placing the action of the play in a barracks environment, where the audience intermingle with the squaddies, sharing their experiences and seeing their King as a of a soldier under his command. From this point I began to develop the idea of how I would present the battle of Agincourt, counterpointing the image of the warrior king with the reality of the conflict.
The decision to frame the production with reference to the Falklands War was prompted partly because it was arguably 2 Para’s finest hour, and partly because the conflict was a unilateral military action under the direction of a strong national leader clearly resonates with Henry V.
There was also a reflection for me in the narrative of the conflict. One of the characteristics of the Falklands War was the force route march undertaken by the British Army across the island. This mirrored, in a strange way, the way in which King Henry led his sick and enfeebled army across Northern France towards Calais following the fall of Harfleur. More than perhaps more recent conflict, there was for me a real resonance between those soldiers fighting for an insignificant island in the South Atlantic with the grit and determination of the outnumbered English army Shakespeare portrays at Agincourt.
With all this in place, it was then a case of waiting until we could find the right space to bring this vision of Henry V to performance. The first time I saw the complex of disused studios in the basement of 35 Marylebone High Street, I knew that this was it.