Thursday, 5 December 2013

Theatre review: Henry V (Michael Grandage Company at the Noël Coward Theatre)

A year ago it looked certain that the Michael Grandage Season at the Noël Coward Theatre would be one of the theatrical events of 2013, but as it draws to a close I wonder how long we'll even remember it for. Not that the star-studded quintet of plays has been bad, at least not always, but it's certainly not been stellar either. The last time Grandage took on a West End theatre for a year he ended with Jude Law as Hamlet, and they reunite to close this season as well with a go at Henry V. On inheriting the crown, Henry instantly abandons fun and games in favour of a ruthless ambition to reclaim French territory he believes rightfully his. Convincing himself that god is on his side, the way things pan out does nothing to disprove this theory as his tiny, exhausted English army trounces their stronger enemy.

Grandage showed a real flair for Shakespeare in his years at the Donmar Warehouse but something of that spark seems to have been missing lately, particularly in what is a very workmanlike Henry V. Christopher Oram's set takes the idea of the wooden O very literally, playing on it a traditional-dress production that tries to go for the prologue's request that the words put epic scenes into our heads, but doesn't stir the imagination as much as that requires.

The only modern-dress interloper into the 15th Century action is Ashley Zhangazha as the Chorus, and also as the Boy. The costuming conceit works for the former but not the latter, and it's as if Grandage had two good ideas for the Chorus that he couldn't decide between: The Chorus full of praise for the king's actions being the same character as the nameless Boy who becomes victim to Henry's foreign policy; or the Chorus as a modern young man looking back and bringing history to life. Both together make a mixed message, where one might have helped stamp an identity the production's short on. The most notable directorial choice is an omission: Where many Henry Vs seem to be competing over how many tennis balls they can get onto a stage at once, here not one of them makes it out of the "treasure" chest. A nicely understated touch but one that might have been more appreciated in a production that actually delivered the fireworks elsewhere.

I've seen Law on stage a few times over the last 15 years or so, always in Jacobethan drama, and while I know some people think him dull I've always found him watchable, with an affinity for the genre. If I didn't know this I might have come away with a pretty negative view of his acting ability from this, as he just doesn't shine here for the first two hours. He's quite simply miscast as Henry, a character who requires a kind of brutish charisma Law doesn't have. It's particularly obvious once we get to his final scene, which absolutely does play to his strengths as he tries to woo Pirate Jessie Buckley's Princess Katharine, displaying a rakish charm and ease with the language that makes him finally come to life.

There's strong support helping buoy the show up, from Noma Dumezweni as Mistress Quickly and Alice, and Grandage stalwart Ron Cook as Pistol, with Matt Ryan as an entertaining Fluellen. But the production as a whole struggles to be memorable: It does what it has to to tell the story and make the time pass quickly enough; but, perhaps because Law's Henry never brings to life the king's contradictory personality, the whole show is left without much of an identity of its own.

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking until the 15th of February at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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