The three Henrys
In January 1951 the Old Vic Theatre presented Glen Byam Shaw’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V to start the Festival of Britain year. Starring Alec Clunes as the king and the young Dorothy Tutin as a beguiling Katherine, it was a great success and is remembered today as the first serious staging of the play since Laurence Olivier’s wartime film. Clunes’ Henry was totally different from Olivier’s; in place of Olivier’s bravura and patriotic fervour, Clunes gave a more introspective performance. He was a king troubled about his legitimate right to the throne and worried about his responsibilities, but who could inspire his soldiers when the moment came. The public and the critics loved it, as it uncovered subtleties in what had previously been considered an unsubtle play. Later that year at Stratford-upon-Avon, the young Richard Burton played King Henry in another memorable production.
In the Clunes archive in the Eton College Library, which I have just finished cataloguing, are documents which show the friendship that existed between the three King Henrys. Before the first night at the Old Vic Alec Clunes received a telegram from the Oliviers which read: ‘God and his Angels guard your sacred throne and may you long become it – Vivien and Larry Olivier’.
After his first night Richard Burton in a modest letter to Clunes wrote:
Thank you very much indeed for your telegram. Very kind of you, and I certainly needed it. I can’t tell you how very delighted I was to get it.
A couple of critics were rather savage to me and it took me a day or two to get over them. I suppose I must get used to it!
Thank you again Alec. I wish I’d been able to see your performance, but so many people told me that you were superb that I, being at my age naturally derivative, though it best not to go.
Sincerely, Richard Burton.