James Cooney on performing in Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s Henry V is the play launching the winter season in the fabulously candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s the first time this work has been put on there, so we were excited to get a chance to talk to actor James Cooney, who will be playing Thomas of Lancaster along with other roles in the production.
Wow, James! This is exciting stuff. Henry V is a real powerhouse of a play to be staged in such an intimate venue. And it’s being directed by Holly Race Roughan from Headlong. How do you feel about being a part of it all?
It was a no brainer for me when I was asked to be a part of this production. All of Shakespeare’s plays have an uncanny ability to speak to our time. Henry V however might be one of the most soul-shakingly (I might have made this phrase up!) relevant plays for an English audience in 2022/23. You can’t help but ask what it means to be English when you read it and how this play resonates for us now.
Can you tell us about the different characters you will be playing? Which is your favourite?
I play Thomas, brother to King Henry V; Orleans, a friend and lover to Prince Louis of France; and Gower, a captain in the English army. The beauty of playing multiple roles is they all have their own quirks that I enjoy exploring. But Thomas is the most interesting to me from a psychological perspective. It’s interesting to consider what it is like to be so close to the throne but knowing you will probably never become king. The complexity of family dynamics is something we have explored in detail in our production .
The Globe is renowned for their ensemble productions. What’s it like working with this particular company?
Ensemble is definitely the word! Holly has set up a space where collaboration is encouraged and it is supported by all the staff at the Globe. Entering a rehearsal space can be a daunting prospect whatever your experience level. But from day one the Globe welcomed us all with open arms. Most theatres do a meet and greet on day one, but this was the first time I had experienced EVERYONE in the building coming together to introduce themselves. It makes such a difference to start off on an equal footing and feeling like I belonged in the room.
You really will be acting in very close proximity to the audience in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: are you ready for going to full scale battle in a Jacobean theatre?
Thankfully, Shakespeare recognised the power of the imagination! Devoid of CGI Shakespeare calls upon the audience to “work your thoughts” and imagine the war happening on stage. It’s what theatre does better than other media – asking the audience to create the story with the people on stage. In the Playhouse you really can see every single audience member’s face and that complicity of imagination and play between the audience and the actors can be electrifying!
You’ve had some experience of drama that makes contemporary political commentary, having been in The 47th at the Old Vic, last year – a play about Donald Trump. How do you think this production reflects on today’s Britain?
I am a massive football fan and with the World Cup starting I am waiting to hear some of those famous Henry V speeches used in a motivational video before England play an important game! I think this play is a part of the fabric of England whether you like it or not! It asks so many questions about nationalism, patriotism, Englishness, Britishness, the relationship between those in power to those subject to power. The list goes on. Whether we accept or reject the ideas Shakespeare presents is up to the individual, but there’s no doubting its relevancy in a country which finds itself questioning its identity.
What do you think the audiences are going to take away from this Henry V?
I am always wary of telling an audience what they SHOULD take away. We are sharing a story and not a lecture. However, as a company I think there was a recognition that we had to re-interrogate Henry V in 2022. Is Henry an English hero? Or was he a “foolish youth” as mentioned by his own father and the French nobility? Was Agincourt some divine miracle? Or did the English get lucky in the face of overwhelming odds? And how does all of this relate to an English identity in 2022? I guess what I am trying to say is I hope audience leave with more questions. And that most importantly it was two hours well spent!
We’d like to thank James very much for taking the time to chat with us, and wish him well for the coming season. Henry V plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from Thursday 10 November to Saturday 4 February. Get your tickets now because, to quote the Bard himself:
“… gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”
Henry V is a Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong Production with Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate Northampton. It is on now in the indoor, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through to 4 February. Tickets and information available here.