Why perform Henry V with a boys’ company?

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At first I was unsure myself why I should direct Henry V with an all-boy group. The 1913 K.E.S. cast featured both sexes; indeed the Chorus was performed by a professional actress.

And then I thought about that cast, and how all those Old Boys went off to fight in a real war within a few years. I imagined a couple of them meeting up by chance the night before the Battle of the Somme – or Ypres – and greeting one another as old friends. Old Boys. What would they talk about? Inevitably (I felt) they would swap memories of that production where they played at being soldiers who fought a famous battle in a field not many miles from where they were sitting. They might even quote a few half-remembered lines. Now they were supposed to be real soldiers. Had they now grown into the role? Do soldiers ever really feel they are doing anything other than playing at it? I can only surmise that meeting up with an old school friend at such a time would be comforting.

In June 2012 my wife and I visited Westminster Abbey as tourists. We trooped past the tombs and sculptures, the plaques and portraits, and I looked hard at the tomb of Henry V. Disappointed, I felt no particular spark. Then, in a rather plain room below floor level within a dull glass case, we saw Henry V’s “funeral achievements” – his shield, his helmet and his saddle. These were items touched by the man himself. I was struck powerfully. And later I read that in 1599 Shakespeare would have attended the funeral of the poet Edmund Spenser at Westminster Abbey, and would probably have gazed at those very objects; perhaps he felt a similar sense of awe.

In the school’s Memorial Library (built in 1923) there is a bronze plaque with the names of the Old Boys and Masters of the school who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars. There is also a stained-glass window which commemorates two brothers who died in the earlier conflict, the Jennings Window. Both lads were in the cast of Henry V and so the window features an image of Shakespeare’s king and a quotation from Act 4 (“O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts.”)

It is in ways such as this that communities like schools memorialize their dead, thereby emphasising a sense of continuity.

And our production is another way.

Perry Mills, Director