Kevin Myers: A speech so intoxicating it would cause Long Kesh veterans to cry 'God for Harry, England and St George!'
Published 24/07/2012 | 17:00
The quite marvellous BBC2 series on Shakespeare's royal plays -- with Jeremy Irons quite astounding as Henry IV -- ended on Sunday with a Tay Bridge disaster production of 'Henry V'. Political correctness hit the conjoined twins of kingship and patriotism head on. And it is no reflection on the acting skills of Paterson Joseph to say that it was absurd to cast a black man as Duke of York. For the Duke was grandson of the Plantagenet King Edward III, and on his mother's side, great grandson of Philip III of France. In other words, blanc de blanc.
This was just the latest example of British drama producers being 'colour-blind', though there is actually an agenda here, as identified by Paterson Joseph himself: "The problem with not seeing representations of black British life before 1948 is that it makes young black people feel like newcomers. Television and film have been whitewashed, but I think theatre is well ahead."
Well, there you have it. Theatre's apparent role is now to create a politically correct and racially adjusted history of England. In this, the black population of England did not arrive largely from the 1950s on, but apparently were always present yet invisible because they had been "whitewashed" out.
But that doesn't justify making a black man a medieval noble. Moreover, we know that politico-theatrical agenda at work would never lead to a Japanese or Burmese or Eskimo actor being cast as the Duke of York. And the requisite colour-blindness is mono-directional. No white or Chinese actor may play a black man: Othello, say, or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.
On the other hand, a black actor would not be cast an Irishman in -- say -- an O'Casey play, because 'race' is still accepted by the liberal elite to be intrinsic to traditional Irishness. And so, if the BBC were to make a film about 15th century Ireland, it would never cast a black actor as the 15th century Earl of Cork, now would it? That would be absurd -- except, alas, the Duke of York at Agincourt was also the Earl of Cork.
So a black actor would never play Captain MacMorris, the Irish officer in Henry's army. Unfortunately, this part was written out of the BBC production -- no doubt because he was too stage-Irish for modern susceptibilities. But this is missing the point. MacMorris's person represents England's latest imperial acquisition. Who else in Shakespeare ever talks about nationality? "Of my nation?" he cries in rage. "What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?"
Shakespeare's 'Henry V' laid bare the most cold-blooded atrocity ever perpetrated by an English king, the slaughter of thousands of captured French knights, which the BBC production rightly showed. Yet as Shakespeare revealed, this was not some departure from a civilised norm. At Harfleur, Henry warned that his soldiers, "shall range with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants. . . your pure maidens fall into the hand of hot and forceful violation. . . see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of thy shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beards and their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes."
Girls raped, babies butchered: and all this from the 'hero', the king of England, no less, and probably to be heard by Queen Elizabeth in the audience. For unlike his craven interpreters today, Shakespeare was extraordinarily brave and challenging. And, enunciated with quite abominable relish by (the generally excellent) Tom Hiddlestone, the murderous threats before Harfleur were virtually the sole saving grace of this abysmal 'Henry V'.
But what of Henry's speech before Agincourt? This is one of the greatest masterpieces of rhetoric in the English language: "And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered -- we few, we happy few, we band of brothers." It is from this source that the simple but magic word 'few' derives its hidden yet enduring moral authority, within all Anglophone cultures. The entire address is so intoxicating, so unashamedly pitched at men's warrior-instincts, that it would cause Long Kesh veterans in the Falls Road Felons' Club to leap on to their tables, crying "God for Harry, England and St George!".
Instead, the timid and politically correct anti-jingoistic politics of this production caused Henry to murmur the words conversationally to just a few senior knights, like a Ballymaloe Allen discussing the recipe for soda-bread with the kitchen-help. But theatre is not life. It is authorised to, and sometimes must, take grave liberties with both our common-sense and our emotions: yet here, the very essence of dramatic theatricality -- of oratorical crescendo reaching an emotional and irresistible climax -- was reduced to the whimpering bathos of official unpatriotism.
In short, Shakespeare's most rousing play was turned into a vapid gruel by the cowardice of PC dogma. What next? A Zulu Lesbian Hamlet? Macbess? The Merry Gays of Windsor? Romeo and Julius?