“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”
Anyone expecting the usual thrilling, spine-tingling, rabble-rousing roar of this battle speech will be disappointed. The words are delivered in haste, in the heat of battle; a hoarse and desperate exhortation rather than a rallying cry. In fact many of the iconic speeches of this oft-quoted play are thrown away in this production. This is largely a volume issue; the Barbican is a huge space, seating nearly twice as many the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and projection is therefore critical. Unfortunately there were moments during the play when this just didn’t work. Alex Hassell, as Henry, has a natural and unpretentious delivery. He also speaks very quickly, especially during the first act, meaning that one sometimes has to strain to catch the import of his words. Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel is well-nigh inaudible, her lovely sermon of peace delivered only to her fellow cast members and sometimes, bafflingly, facing away from the audience altogether.
This problem is doubly upsetting as the acting is clearly so masterly. The staging, despite some enchanting design features by Stephen Brimson Lewis and extremely clever lighting by Tim Mitchell, is fairly simple, so all the focus is on the characters themselves. Director Gregory Doran has managed to wring every last ounce of nuance from even the most minor characters, making each one a rounded personage in their own right. There are lovely comic performances from Simon Yadoo and Joshua Richards as an incomprehensible Scotsman and the pompous and verbose Welshman Fluellen respectively. Jennifer Kirby is a charming and spirited Katharine; it is no mean feat to make people laugh when speaking a language many of them do not understand, but she manages it beautifully. Robert Gilbert is a mincing, self-important Dauphin and Oliver Ford Davies ambles vaguely around the stage as Chorus, his cardigan, scarf and passionate enthusiasm reminiscent of a fondly-remembered, eccentric schoolmaster.
But it is Henry himself, of course, who people have come to see. Having played Hal in Henry IV I and II, Alex Hassell has an excellent pedigree. His Henry is genuine, understated, and – especially in the second act – utterly moving. His distress when confronted by the blunt and implacable Jamy (also Yadoo) is very real; his belief in himself and in the justness of his cause is clearly shaken and it is with a great effort that he rouses himself; firstly back to conviction and then to a righteous fury which explodes from him with the sudden shock of a physical blow.
He and Kirby together also manage to rescue what can be a difficult ending. The contrast between the thundering climax of the Agincourt victory and the coy wooing and pettifogging negotiation which follows often leaves both production and audience alike feeling deflated, but Doran wisely plays up the humour of the final scene. Hassell proves himself a fine comic actor as he stutters and muffs his courtship in true Hugh Grant fashion, and Kirby is a delight as Katharine, imperious and giggling in turns as she first rebuffs then relishes his clumsy advances.
Henry V is a character of contrasts: Strong but easily wounded; Powerful but fallible; A king, but also a man. Doran’s interpretation reflects these dichotomies, making for a gripping but also accessible production. Excellent stuff.
Review by Genni Trickett
Henry IV is dead and Hal is King. With England in a state of unrest, he must leave his rebellious youth behind, striving to gain the respect of his nobility and people.
Following productions of Richard II (2013/14) and Henry IV Parts I & II (2014/15), Gregory Doran and the RSC creative team continue their exploration of Shakespeare’s History plays. They return with the conclusion of this epic tale in the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt. Having played Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts I & II, Alex Hassell is back as the newly crowned Henry V in the final part of the tetralogy.
Feature trailer | Henry V | Royal Shakespeare Company
‘There is no better director of Shakespeare around today’
The Sunday Times on Gregory Doran’s production of Hamlet
2 hours 55 mins/including a 20 minute interval
This performance contains haze, pyrotechnics and loud sound effects
Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS
Booking Until: 30th December 2015