Thursday, 24 February 2022

Theatre review: Henry V (Donmar Warehouse)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Yet another show where the press night has been pushed back due to some preview performances having to be cancelled.

Welp, a grimly appropriate day to go see a show about a country being invaded because a neighbouring ruler has a sense of entitlement to it. The first Shakespeare production under the Donald and Margot Warehouse's current team sees Max Webster take on Henry V, with Kit "Christopher" Harington in the title role. Webster's production actually begins by taking us back to the Henry IV plays that precede it, and showing us Harington's Hal partying with thieves and cutthroats, before receiving news of his father's death. Foreshadowing events in the play itself, we see him refuse to make the promises of leniency for thieves his friends ask for, before ascending the throne and coldly rejecting his former close companion Falstaff (Steven Meo.) Once in power Henry wastes no time in making it clear his interests as king lie in expansion, specifically in building a spurious case for being rightful ruler of France. He makes demands that are inevitably rejected, and begins his invasion.

The play is for the most part divided between three groups of characters: Henry's court and nobles led by his loyal aunt Exeter (Kate Duchêne), pushing forward with both military skill and more underhand tactics; the actual British soldiers on the ground, many of whom like Pistol (Danny Kirrane,) Nym (David Judge) and Bardolph (Claire-Louise Cordwell) are former friends from Henry's days slumming it; and Henry's counterparts in the French court, led by the measured, thoughtful King (Jude Akuwudike) and his more hot-headed son and heir, the Dauphin (Olivier Huband).

Like most productions since Adrian Lester channelled Tony Blair 20 years ago, this is a modern-dress Henry V dominated by actors in military camo. But appearances aside I couldn't help but feel it was a very old-fashioned Shakespeare trying to look like a modern one: Millicent Wong's Chorus is a classic declamatory performance, a quartet of live chorus singers regularly add an operatic touch to the production's portentousness, and the performances from everyone are very much of the type where a body part will never be mentioned without getting enthusiastically gestured to at the same time (the balls he's talking about are actually tennis balls, will Harington grab his testicles anyway? YOU BET HE WILL!)

The play is known for its contradictory nature, having been seen both as jingoistic flag-waving and anti-war satire. Personally the more times I see the play the harder it is to see Henry as anything other than a sociopath: He may be in the right about the fact that the rogue lords are traitors, but the way he toys with them before killing them, just to assert his own moral superiority, is pure Bond villain, and there's numerous other instances in the play to back this up. The dark interpretation is very much what Webster is going for, and it's for the best as Harington is certainly better at the dead-eyed pragmatism than at the rousing military leader - "Once more unto the breach" falls pretty flat, not helped by the fact that it's performed on a metal bridge lowered onto Fly Davis' set, and Harington can't stomp on it too enthusiastically or it'll wobble. This gangway eventually goes flaccid to allow him to step off it, but it does finally get used to much more dramatic effect before the interval, when it becomes erect to have Bardolph hanged from it. Other than this the main element of Davis' set design is a stage made up of shallow steps, which after Spring Awakening makes me wonder if after many years we might have a recurring theatrical meme for 2022?

One of Webster's conceits for the production is to have all the French characters speak in French with surtitles translating their dialogue back into Shakespeare's English; it's a bit odd in a play that actually does have scenes written in French and expected to be understood without translation, and it also messes with any chance at comic timing. But then as with the lead character, this is a single-mindedly dark production in general, so little of the comedy is played - there's no foppish ridiculousness to Huband's Dauphin, and Meo's Fluellen attacking Pistol with a leek is full-on brutal rather than comic. It means any attempts at comedy that do make it feel out of place.

Henry V is one of those hugely popular Shakespeare plays whose pitfalls I think are underestimated - in this play's case, three hours of people in desert camo running around in mud can get tiresome, especially when we're looking at a tonally single-minded production like this one. The 90-minute first half actually goes pretty quickly, but by the second I was flagging and could have done with a bit more subtlety (the human consequences of Henry's imperialism are rather hammered home, like when he demands the surrender of Harfleur, to a projected backdrop of the town's citizens doing *sadface*.) I suppose it must be tricky to get all the nuance in when 90% of rehearsal time has to be spent explaining to the lead that Hal, Harry and Henry are all the same person.

One thing I did really like was the way the Henry IV Part 2 party scenes brought into the opening of the play were mirrored later, after the resounding victory at Agincourt: Having already seen the English soldiers' disrespectful treatment of the French dead, we then have a victory party that looks a lot like the early tavern scene, with Henry and his generals partying even as one of his soldiers (Adam Maxey) succumbs to PTSD in the background. To the various interpretations of Hal's wild years and apparent transformation when he ascends the throne, it adds the alternative option that he never actually left his wild years behind; he just has a bigger sandbox to play in, and one which can cause a lot more collateral damage.

With a pretty much unredeemable Henry the climactic wooing of Katherine (Anoushka Lucas) is inevitably played for awkwardness rather than warm humour, a valid approach but one that by this point just drags out a production that creeps over the three-hour mark. Despite the violence I sometimes got a feel of a "schools" Shakespeare production that telegraphs its intentions a bit too unsubtly, and aside from a couple of neat ideas I found the whole approach a bit too familiar to hold my interest.

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking until the 9th of April at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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