Wednesday 23 May 2007

Henry V - world premiere

Mon 21 May
Brighton Dome

Henry V as we've never seen it before. I saw Laurence Olivier's film in the school hall 50 years ago, and have never had the urge to see it again since; nor the play. But then it has never had 200 singers and musicians to help it along. Someone has found William Walton's full original score, someone else has blanked the music off the sound-track, and Brighton Festival has got Carl Davis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, along with Brighton Festival Chorus and Brighton Festival Youth Choir to singalong-a-Shakespeare.

A stunning multimedia performance, even if the orchestra was sometimes not quite in synch with the on-screen action, and the actors' lips seemed never quite to be where they intended them to be; I even managed to miss "Once more unto the breach ..." ! I ask you - you wait 50 years to hear it again, and then it's drowned out by the RPO's brass section. The music is suitably rousing, and the choirs filled the Dome with sound - they really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The film itself is intriguing. I was sure I remembered it as being in B&W, but here it was in the strangest pastel colours, throughout. It was made in 1944, just as the war was turning in the Allies' favour, and it is fascinating to see how Olivier handles Shakespeare's exploitation of English patriotism and national stereotypes, look you.

The sets are an absolute tour de force, and the film would be worth watching again just to see how Olivier overcomes wartime restrictions to achieve a coherent filmic interpretation of Shakespeare's play. Basically he makes a virtue out of necessity. In the opening scenes we are in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in the audience, onstage, and backstage, everywhere cramped. The film then moves out of the confines of the theatre, but all the locations retain a very strong sense of the limitations of theatre set construction and space. It looks as though it was all shot on Hampstead Heath. And the matchstick model of 16th century London is exquisite!

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