The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive we file reviews of several London productions of Shakespeare's Henry V since 2001 together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare, or just browse.
RSC 2001 - British Touring Shakespeare 2001 - NT 2003 - RSC 2008 - Propeller 2012 - Wyndham's 2013 - RSC 2015
Barbican Theatre Spring 2001
The Royal Shakespeare Company's dynamic and exciting new production (part of its complete Histories cycle) is proof that theatrical vitality is far more important than literary interpretation.
An explanation: there are essentially two basic readings of this play about the soldier-king's conquest of France. The older interpretation saw a simple patriotic pageant with a one-dimensional hero who makes some great speeches; the best example of this is the Olivier film. More recent productions find the human drama of an uncertain or unproved young king who grows into heroic stature in the course of the play; see, for example, the Branagh film.
Director Edward Hall manages to combine the two, offering a gritty, anti-heroic vision of the war and its soldiers, but with a fully-confident, fully-formed heroic Henry at its centre. It shouldn't work, but it does; and even at well over three hours, it's fast-moving and engrossing from start to finish.
To some extent William Houston was stuck with his characterisation of Henry, having played the young prince in the Henry IV plays as more mature and fully developed than ususal. As in the earlier plays, his Henry is a man who knows with absolute confidence how good he is, even if others don't. While this takes away from all three plays any opportunity for the character's dramatic growth, it does make for a very attractive figure, and Houston plays Henry for all his charismatic power.
There's no shining armour or oratorical flourish to this production. The vaguely modern dress has everyone, including Henry, in battle fatigues through most of the action, and the common soldiers are little more than football yobs. War means smoke, blood and casual brutality, and the king's set pieces - "Once more unto the breech," the warning to Harfleur, the Crispin's Day speech - are all spoken in the heat and blood-lust of battle.
And yet it isn't static or stagy. Houston's Henry comes across as exactly the kind of general a modern war needs - expert, confident and authoritative. No obstacle the play throws at him, from his best friend's treachery, through the need to execute his old pal Bardolph, to the moral questions raised by the soldier Williams, can seriously shake him. Even the final wooing scene, usually played for the joke that the war hero is inept with a girl, becomes a delighted celebration of his success in this new arena. The message of the play is that England is - or was - in good hands.
In the supporting cast, Adrian Schiller is a valiant Fluellen considerably less comic than most, while Richard Bremmer's scarecrow Pistol is the embodiment of slimy cowardice and Joshua Reynolds is a sturdy, admirable Williams.
With four plays of the eight-play cycle under their belt so far, the RSC is riding high, with this one and Richard II both innovative and theatrically exciting new interpretations.
Shaw Theatre Spring 2001
At long last, a company that does Shakespeare - and indeed theatre - the way it should be done. The brainchild of director Miles Gregory, this is drama at its most human that talks to the gods and mercilessly plunders popular culture - particularly that golden period of seventies to early eighties British TV - with a relish that would make Berkoff sick with envy.
British Touring Shakespeare takes on the ritual of medieval society and its complex interrelationships with little more than an array of boiler suits, donkey jackets and a bare stage with a pair of clothes hangers. The Chorus, in the matey form of Mike Rogers, invites the audience into a world where Tom Mallaburn's Henry is an ex-public schoolboy anxious to be seen doing the right thing.
His values learnt on the playing fields of privilege survive battered yet intact - like cricket, the taking part in the carnage of Agincourt seems more important than the winning. Indeed, Mallaburn's roll call of the fallen is a spine-tingling moment where, after all this testosterone-fuelled political jockeying, the enormity of the human cost sinks in.
Tom Walwyn goes wonderfully over the top as the Dauphin, contrasting with Clive Fryde's doddery but eagle-eyed King of France. Tobias Beer goes for an insanely believable Fluellen in the style of Windsor Davies, upstaged only by David Barnaby's Uncle Albert of a Pistol.
Laden with irony the dialogue is dotted with improvisatory grace notes, while Barbara Capocci's sparse design and Kevin James' subtle lighting prove how less is best, ensuring the audience is privy to each huddle of intrigue or part of each charge. In unashamedly placing patriotism above nationalism, this production satisfyingly gives no quarter.
Olivier Theatre Spring 2003
Nicholas Hytner's first production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is clean, clever and nice to look at, with an attractive hero at its centre. If it lacks a clear interpretation or much that is new to those familiar with the play, it is still worth a visit.
There are essentially two basic readings of Shakespeare's portrait of the hero of Agincourt. One sees it as a simple patriotic epic with a golden boy hero, while the other doesn't start from the assumption that Henry is great, but lets the untested young man of the beginning grow into his full stature. (Compare the Olivier and Branagh films, excellent examples of the two approaches.)
Hytner has chosen to take the first route, with a Henry who enters as a confident, no-nonsense business executive and marches straight through to a confident wooing of the French princess, with only a very brief moment of uncertainty before the big battle.
In doing so, the production automatically sacrifices most possibilities for depth or character development, and the director's few attempts to flesh out the rather one-dimensional hero - flashbacks to his youth with Falstaff, having him execute Bardolph himself - don't amount to much.
There are occasional gestures toward an anti-war reading, as in that rather brutal onstage execution and a brief rebellion among the soldiers against Henry's order to kill their prisoners, and transparent attempts to evoke contemporary parallels, in the modern battle dress and use of television, but they really don't add anything.
It takes more than a couple of onstage jeeps and some mock TV newscasts to make the play comment on the present, and an anti-war interpretation (which has also been tried before, notably by the RSC in the Vietnam years) has to fight the words on the page too hard to work.
What we are left with, then, are a number of attractive performances, led by Adrian Lester's confident and authoritative king, a born leader with a charm and charisma unclouded by any irony, even when some of his more political speeches are presented as TV soundbites.
And by casting a black actor without any internal comment or political statement, just because he's good in the role, the National Theatre advances itself to the level the New York Shakespeare Festival was at fifty years ago.
Penny Downie adds a nice warmth to the play as the Chorus, a modern bluestocking academic with an infectious love for her subject. Robert Blythe's Fluellen (spelled Llewellyn in the programme) starts a bit low-keyed, but becomes noticeably more exuberant and more Welsh as the play progresses.
Adam Levy is a hot-headed Dauphin (and surely it is an error to kill him onstage in the battle, making nonsense of the later moment when Henry's peace terms force the French king to disown him), while Jude Akuwudike's Pistol is victim of some textual cutting that leaves him little chance to make an impression.
Felicite du Jeu hints at a spikier, more independent Catherine than one normally sees. Cameos are provided by the voice of John Normington at Harfleur and a videotaped Desmond Barrit as Falstaff.
Roundhouse Spring 2008
With Henry V, director Michael Boyd completes the first half of the Shakespeare's eight-play history cycle, in a production I personally find more gimmicky than illuminating, but which I concede is theatrically exciting and as good an introduction to the play as any Shakespearean novice could want.
A reminder - after the unpromising youth seen in the Henry IV plays, Hal has become the golden king of British legend as he sets off to conquer France, a campaign culminating in the near-miraculous victory at Agincourt and his marriage to the French princess.
Now, I personally prefer interpretations of this play, like the Terry Hands-Alan Howard RSC production of thirty years ago or the Kenneth Branagh film, that don't start from the assumption that Henry is a hero, but let us (and him) discover in the course of the play that he is up to the challenges of both war and peace.
But I recognise that an actor and director who have followed the character through the Henry IV plays will inevitably find much of the arc of his growth before this play begins.
And so I accept that Geoffrey Streatfeild's Henry is almost completely there as this play opens - mature, confident and inspiring confidence in others.
The final steps in his development come beautifully in the night before Agincourt, as he adds humility, sincere piety and a full awareness of the burdens of kingship to his character.
The Agincourt Eve sequence does play beautifully, as the emotional centre of the play, and so does the post-battle discovery and reaction to the extraordinary victory. And, with Henry as fully matured and confident as he's going to get, the wooing scene of the last act can be played and enjoyed as simple happy romantic comedy.
On the other hand, I found Henry's set pieces - 'Once more unto the breach' and the St. Crispin's Day speech - impressive oratory but emotionally disappointing.
Henry pretty well dominates this play, leaving little room for others to make an impression. Nicholas Asbury's Pistol is more subdued than most, hardly living up to his fiery name. Jonathan Slinger is an attractive Fluellen, eccentric without being ridiculous. And Forbes Masson's enthusiastic Chorus sets the Great Adventure tone of the production.
After the relatively straight-forward Henry IV plays director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper lapse back into some of the silliness of Richard II.
With the English soldiers spending much of their time popping their heads out of foxhole-like trapdoors, the French court are all on trapezes, and even that piano gets lowered from the flies again, for no clear reason except perhaps to get the RSC's money's worth from the effect.
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2012
This production from Edward Hall's all-male Propeller Theatre Company is crisp, clear, frequently exciting and always intelligent. I can recommend it enthusiastically with the one reservation that it lacks a single quality that would really impress me but that others might not miss.
There are traditionally two readings of Shakespeare's play about the hero-king who conquers France. One celebrates him as a golden boy in a pageant of his triumphs, the other introduces him as an untried leader who discovers his heroic stature along with us as the play progresses. (See the Olivier and Branagh films for prime examples of the two approaches.)
Director Hall has chosen a third path. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart plays a Henry much deeper and more complex than most golden-boy kings. He's intelligent, feeling, self-aware and confident enough to have a sense of humour and irony, chuckling at things ranging from the Dauphin's insults to Fluellen's enthusiasms.
My one disappointment is that he's that way from the start, fully formed and with nowhere to go with the character. Scroop's treachery shakes this Henry a little, but nothing else seems to affect him enough to move him to growth, change or development.
So we have a much more interesting, and therefore more attractive Henry than some productions give us, but still a static one, without the character growth and discovery of others.
That reservation aside, there is much to admire and enjoy here, even beyond Bruce-Lochart's performance. Hall and designer Michael Pavelka set the play in a modern army, which at first seems a mistake, Shakespearean soldiers with machine guns having become almost as dreary a cliche as a fascist-era Julius Caesar.
But Hall is imagining the modern soldiers putting on the play, bringing their military sensibilities to it without imposing annoying anachronisms, and it works. In place of Shakespeare's single Chorus figure, Hall breaks up those speeches so the entire company are pushing each other aside in their infectious enthusiasm to tell this rattling good story, a variant on the Nicholas Nickleby narrative device that is particularly evocative here.
Propeller have long since learned how to overcome any problems – audience giggles, etc. - that might arise from an all-male cast, and Karl Davies never tries to pretend that his Katherine is not a man in a dress but transcends that to make us relate to his character.
There are a few noticeable cuts – Falstaff's offstage death, some of Fluellen's obsessiveness about the rules of war, some of the French pre-battle chatter – and before and during the climactic battle director Hall chops up separate scenes to cut back and forth between the French and English in an effectively cinematic way.
Despite multiple doubling and redoubling of roles, it is always clear who we're seeing and what's going on. There were a couple of school groups in my audience, always an acid test for Shakespeare productions, and I can report that they were held throughout, following the action, laughing when they were meant to, being caught up in the excitement when they were meant to.
If I would ideally like a little more, this is still as fine a Henry V as most (even I) could ask for.
Noel Coward Theatre Winter 2013-2014
Director Michael Grandage's extended season at the Noel Coward theatre ends, if not with a whimper, then with a muffled bang, a production that is adequate but not much more than that.
There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to Shakespeare's Henry V. One starts with the image of Henry as glorious hero and then enjoys the pageant of his victories and stirring speeches. The other introduces him as an unknown factor and then discovers his stature (perhaps as he discovers it himself) as he grows into greatness. (Prime examples of each interpretation are the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh films.)
Michael Grandage has chosen the first, and to me far less interesting approach. Jude Law's king enters the play strong, confident and fully formed, and just marches unchangingly through the play.
None of the play's many crises or turning points – the Dauphin's insults, the exposure of the traitors, the siege of Harfleur, the night before Agincourt, the victory or the wooing of Katharine – has any effect on him, and he ends the play exactly as he was at the beginning.
Now, there are many things that make Shakespeare the greatest of writers, but surely one of them is that all his heroes, comic and tragic, undergo journeys of self-discovery that change them and enrich our understanding of humanity.
It is undoubtedly fun to watch a golden boy's uninterrupted triumphs, especially when he's played by an attractive star like Jude Law, but you're likely to find it unsatisfying.
Jude Law has a strong physical presence, speaks the lines intelligently – the St Crispin's Day speech, a high point of this production, is delivered conversationally to a handful of colleagues and works beautifully that way – and his natural delivery gets more out of the too-often dreary comic wooing scene than most actors do.
As his Hamlet four years ago (with the same director) showed, he is capable of creating a nuanced and textured characterisation, so we must conclude that Michael Grandage told him not to here. So it is Grandage who must be blamed for this production's emptiness.
Grandage and designer Christopher Oram can also have their judgement questioned in dressing everyone alike on a dimly lit stage, so that we sometimes have to hunt for Henry in the crowds – commented my companion in the princess's English lesson scene, 'At last! Bright light and no men in brown!' – and for lazily staging too many scenes with everyone just lined up in a row.
Elsewhere, the always reliable Ron Cook brings life and reality to Pistol, Matt Ryan can't do much that's new with Fluellen, and Jessie Buckley is appropriately lovely and demure as Katharine.
There is relatively little wrong with this production, just not enough that is especially right.
Barbican Theatre Winter 2015-2016
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran ends his multi-year exploration of Shakespeare's Hal tetralogy (see separate reviews of Richard III 2013 and Henry IV 1&2 2014), if not with a whimper, then with a petering out of energy and focus.
Given the basic choice between a heroic pageant celebrating the golden king (as in the Olivier film) and a more complex drama of an uncertain young man proving (or discovering) his greatness (as in the Branagh film), Doran and his actor Alex Hassell have chosen neither reading, and don't seem to have any third alternative to offer.
Hassell walks through most of the play without giving any clue as to just who this Henry is and what, if anything, he's feeling. There is, for far too long, no sense of him either being fully formed at the beginning or developing along the way.
Some of this emptiness was hinted at in the Henry IV plays, where my reviews noted that we found ourselves getting deeper into (and therefore more involved with) Hotspur than Hal. It is almost as if director Doran took on these plays without being particularly interested in his central character.
Only after Agincourt, when Henry reads the lopsided casualty lists and is struck by the evidence of God's intervention, do we see him actually feel anything.
That abrupt opening up of the character and discovery of his capacity for emotion does make the wooing scene of the last act one of the best I've seen, with the first Henry I've believed might really be in love and not just going through the motions.
But that really is too little too late. Not only have we not been invited into Henry, but much in the production has seemed perversely off-putting.
Alex Hassell speaks his lines intelligently but not always audibly, and too often Doran's mode is presentational, actors facing front and making speeches at us rather than interacting with each other.
Playing 'Once more unto the breach' to the audience as if we were the reluctant troops has the surely unintended effect of undercutting Henry, since he is desperately trying to get a rise out of those who are most certainly not going to follow him; and the St Crispin's Day speech seems more designed to cheer himself up than rouse the troops.
There are some strong moments. As the Chorus, Oliver Ford Davies does his usual better-than-anyone-else-around scene-stealing, not only repeatedly surprising us with unexpected but believable and illuminating line readings, but also being virtually the only one working hard to draw us into the play rather than hold us at arm's length.
Doran has given the Duke of Burgundy's speech about the horrors of war to Jane Lapotaire as the French Queen, effectively softening it and bringing it into the body of the play.
Pistol and company are as boring as they usually are, though Fluellen (Joshua Richards) and the other captains are funnier.
This is not a Henry V for the ages. In fact, as my other reviews indicate, the whole tetralogy goes progressively downhill from the strong Richard II. But the opportunities to see the four plays together are an attraction for the dedicated Shakespearean.
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