Monday, 16 November 2015

Theatre review: Henry V (RSC / Barbican)

Shakespeare's history sequence comes to a close with Henry V. Well no, obviously it doesn't; but after initially suggesting the entire octet would form the spine of the RSC's complete works over the years, Gregory Doran's more recently been talking about the project as wrapping up here. Accordingly this production will eventually be joined in rep by the return of his Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 & Part 2, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up farming directing duties for the Henry VIs out to someone else. In the meantime this tetralogy concludes with Henry IV's dynasty finding a brief but memorable moment when its legitimacy isn't questioned: The best way to distract from trouble at home is to make a big noise abroad, so Henry V pursues a dubious claim to large parts of France.

Much of the company of these Histories has followed the story as it's gone on, and so Alex Hassell, who graduated to the throne at the end of the previous play, continues with the role now.

And certainly the most interesting thing about this production is Hassell's interpretation of the king, which sets aside the suggestion of Henry as a naturally talented soldier. Instead he's still learning on the job, indeed the "Once more unto the breach" speech is initially shown to be a failure (although for me actually going so far as to play it for laughs is misjudged,) and it's only as he goes on that he learns how to inspire an army. By the time of the St Crispin's Day speech he's perfected it, but has another steep learning curve when war turns to diplomacy and he has to woo Katherine (Jennifer Kirby.)

The aforementioned tendency to overplay things for laughs is apparent from the opening moments, when Oliver Ford Davies' modern-dress Chorus picks up the crown to muse on the lives of kings, and Henry stomps onto the stage to snatch it back off him. Although it's a nice change for Doran to take any kind of overarching directorial approach, this emphasis on the comic feels glib at times given the subject matter. The French never feel like a threat - the Dauphin is always something of a buffoon but Robert Gilbert is full-on Lord Farquaad, down to the hair (the RSC wig department seems to have an ongoing mission to disguise how handsome Gilbert is.) It's left to Sam Marks' Constable of France to provide a more sensible, formidable opponent for Henry.

Dora the Explorer called, she wants her hair back

So this is an uneven, sometimes odd production, but as well as Hassell there's other strong performances - Joshua Richards' Fluellen speaks in a constant drone that brings a lot of the humour in the soldier's waffling out, while on the other end of the scale Martin Bassindale as the ill-fated Boy brings some of the dignity back to the common rank and file as he leaves behind Pistol and co to find a more noble way of waging war. I liked this much more than the Henry IVs it follows on from, but it's still a production that shines in particular moments rather than as a whole.

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 24th of January at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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