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The Winter’s Tale & Henry V

By William Shakespeare


The Lowry, 7 & 8 February 2012

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Henry V. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

It is the custom of this quite excellent company to take two Shakespeare plays on tour each season.

Their productions are invariably inventive and feel fresh and vibrant.  For they seem to work on the principle that in order to get to the truth in Shakespeare you must find new ways to connect with the audience to tell the story.  And they are very good at doing this.  So we had a Beyonce song in The Winter’s Tale and The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ in Henry V, to give a mere couple of examples.

At first sight, and even after fairly long reflection, what you have here are two very different plays.  The central characters in each seem very different also.  Leontes is made mad by jealousy and loses all faith in his wife’s love.  Only with the death of his son – that’s what it takes, ultimately – is he brought back to his senses.  By contrast, Henry is a king and successful soldier who has complete faith in himself and the rightness of his cause.  Through his martial endeavours, his son becomes heir of England and France too.  Grand and great, though brief, was his reign: a job well done.

But look a little deeper at Henry and you’ll see a war-monger who invades France on a pretext.  And where is the real Henry to be found?  He’s always out there striking a pose, whether at Agincourt or when courting Katherine, his future queen.  In one of the prequels, Falstaff tells Henry: ‘Thou art essentially mad without seeming so.’  And one cannot but concur that Falstaff was on to something.  Henry’s absolute belief in himself is unsettling.

What you have in The Winter’s Tale and Henry V, then, is a pair of plays about different forms of madness, one desolate and condemned and one sanctioned and glorious (though some might say manic or sociopathic).  But they are both destructive in the end.

Apart from this curious affinity, each play has its own particular pleasures.  And did Shakespeare ever write anything as moving and wonderful as act 3, scene 3 in The Winter’s Tale?

The Winter’s Tale and Henry V are currently touring throughout the UK and abroad.  They’re highly recommended , tour dates here.