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Henry V Scenes

by on 26 February 2021

Marvellously Macaronic

Henry V, Scenes from Shakespearean Plays

by William Shakespeare

Teddington Theatre Club, zoomed until 14th June, then on-line on YouTube

Review by Mark Aspen

The English can’t speak French and the French can’t speak English.   Patently untrue of course (well, except for some), but why let facts get in the way of fun, let alone in the way of a good story.  Across twenty-odd miles of water, nos voisions français have always been the butt of (largely) good-humoured jokes, while the other side of the water, we biftecks are ribbed à point.  Thus has it been for centuries, something not lost even on The Bard himself. 

William Shakespeare wrote Henry V ostensibly to report or recall then pertinent history of almost two centuries earlier.  As the culmination of Shakespeare’s sequence of English history plays it is epic, or as epic as can be within the constraints of the theatre, as the opening Chorus apologetically point out.  As such, it had to appeal to everyone.  So we have sublime poetry and knockabout ribaldry.   It presents history to reflect the Zeitgeist of the politics of the day (whilst cleverly being a bit double-edged in this respect), which pleases the upper-classes.  It has soaring poetry and patriotic oratory, which pleases the yeomanry.  It has glamour and heroism, which pleases everybody.   Then there are the groundlings; how does WS please them.  Well, there are the earthly rustics, the soldiers, Pistol, Nim and Bardolph, who provide the comedy (and it must be said much of the pathos).  Now, where does comedy lead?  Where romance and love nudge up against lasciviousness and, dare we say … sex, there lies a rich ground for comedy.   After all, Donald McGill sold 200 million saucy seaside postcards … and how many of us have “never Kippled”?   However, an earlier master of the double-entendre was William Shakespeare.

Teddington Theatre Club’s latest two-day on-line marathon was What’s Love Got to Do with It?, presented over St Valentine’s weekend and designed to be “celebrating love in all its forms (or at least as many as we could think of and fit into two days)”.  The event was designed as a lockdown return match for its Wilde Weekend bonanza back in June 2020.  This is getting to be a deliciously bad habit.

What’s Love Got to Do with It? is a twenty-five century-long anthology that could not be more diverse.  Ranging from Elizabeth Browning to Sacher-Masoch, Little Women to Lady Chatterley, it is sometimes the gentle stroll, sometimes a romp through human intimacy.  As a moist tit-bit, so to speak, the vignette Henry V extract from Scenes from Shakespearean Plays neatly illustrates the thesis of William Shakespeare being a master of the double-entendre.  

Director Juanita Dahhan has filleted Act V Scene 2 of Henry V, where Princess Katharine of France first meets King Henry of England, to add to the sauce of Act III Scene 4, where Katharine is tutored in the English language, by Alice her lady-waiting, to give us the juicy bits.  Here is a comic accident waiting to happen, and TTC’s talented cast shows us how.

Princess Katharine is widening her English vocabulary learning the English for parts of the human body.  Main is hand, doigts are fingers, ongles are nails, bras is arm; so far so good.  The Princess is a quick learner.  But then Malapropisms creep in.  “Le coude?” asks Katharine. “Elbow” prompts Alice.  Katherine reiterates, “… bilbow”.   Since a “bulbo” was the name given in Shakespeare’s time to the swollen lymph nodes characteristic of the Plague, this would have resonated with the audience in 1598 (and in 2021 it chimes uncomfortably with our own Covid plague).   Moreover, in 1598 “bilboes” were shackles used to confine the ankles.  It’s beginning to get a bit naughty! 

Catharine de Valois

Alice goes on, at Princess Katharine’s request, to translate col as neck and menton as chin.  Katherine hears “sin”, interesting, and “nique”, wow, that’s a bit rude!  Then Katherine asks “le pied et la robe?”.  “Foot” and “gown” replies Alice.  Katharine hears “foutre” and “con”.  Shocked, she blushes at the immodesty of the words: not for a young lady’s ears!   Foutre and nique would probably now be translated as the same four-letter word, whereas con is still beyond the pale (try adding a –t, and you are there!).   

The stage is set for when Katharine and Henry meet.  Henry, the victor of Agincourt, tries earnestly to woo Katharine … in a macaron of English and French.  This time round, faux amis conspire to trap Prince Henry.   Try as he might to faire du baratin à Katharine, Henry’s chat-up lines add to the misgivings of the Princess.  Already she fears that “les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies”.  Her fears are compounded when he asks to kiss her, using the term “baiser”.  Then, as now, the word baiser had, shall we say, a much broader spectrum of intimacy than the English word kiss. 

All ended well from this story, as we know from history, Catharine de Valois married Henry to become Queen of England and, in her short marriage to become the mother of the next king of England, Henry VI. 

Peter Hill as King Henry V

So, in this extract from Shakespeare’s play, all is different from what it seems at first.  This state of affairs is mirrored in the eccentrically eclectic casting.  That it works so well is a huge tribute to the acting skills of the cast, a triumph of characterisation.  At first Peter Hill seems almost too nice a chap for the ruthless conqueror of Agincourt and the engaging Shana de Carsignac seems very much a figurative depiction of Princess Catherine de Valois.  As the epitome of blind casting, the beautiful thirty-something lady-in-waiting Alice is played by the long experienced actor Jim Trimmer, twice the character’s age, grey haired and with a beard!  Yet, within minutes of their appearance each one of these actors were totally believable as the characters. 

Shana de Carsignc as Katharine

Shana de Carsignac’s first language is French, and Jim Trimmer is comfortably at home with the language, so there is a good foundation for verisimilitude. 

Peter Hill, one of TTC’s award-winning actors, portrayed the situation of a warrior out of his milieu in the gentle world of courtship, but earnest to succeed as an embodiment of chivalry.  He depicted Henry as a man digging a hole deeper.  Jim Trimmer is a rare actor at giving a continuous image of his character, reacting as well as acting, and totally absorbed with the other protagonists. 

The show must however go to Shana de Carsignac.  Always watchable, she oozes charm and her characterisation of Katherine hits the bullseye.  It would be easy to caricature Katherine as oh-so-so French and overact her bemusement and embarrassment, but Shana de Carsignac injects the role with subtlety, without losing the wide-eyed innocence of the teenage princess.

Jim Trimmer as Alice (sic!)

Backgrounds are non-distractive, but was Alice in the garden of a Chateau de la Loire?  It hinted at Hampton Court, but Catherine de Valois and King Henry first met at Meulin.  Still even Shakespeare has Katharine and Hal meeting at an unspecified French King’s palace.

All three actors play well on video, taking the body-language of the stage into the facial expression of the small screen.   There is clear indication of balanced direction from Juanita Dahhan and the whole thing is a marvellously macaronic bit of fun. 

Vive la différence! 

Mark Aspen, February 2021

Photography by Donald McGill, Dominic Tamerlane and Teddington Theatre Club

Henry V, Scenes from Shakespearean Plays may be seen on YouTube as part of What’s Love Got to Do with It?  (at 1 hour into Part One).

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