The much-anticipated production of Max Webster’s youth-punk version of Shakespeare’s Henry V is a rousing mix of historical events played out in a modern-dress, music-pumping production. It doesn’t always work. We’ve grown accustomed to characters spouting the Bard’s famous prose in London east-end accents while wearing trainers, tracksuit bottoms and moving to a hip-hop beat. It’s no longer innovative, smacks of laziness and requires a rethink for future modern-style productions.
This was especially true in the opening scene, where we meet Prince Hal, not yet King Henry V, in full-crank party mode, knocking back shots, while his acolytes simulate a war dance to the musical wail of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. The tempo of this love song was out of sync with the Walter Benjamin back-drop quote that introduces the play: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.’ But maybe I missed the point.
What elevates this production from somewhat smarmy jokes and an Iceland plastic shopping bag is Kit Harrington’s transition from raucous prince to warrior king of England. He is totally convincing as the supreme commander who leads his tired and outnumbered English troops to victory against the French at Agincourt. He is also adroit at handling both prose and verse, especially noted in a scene where a box of tennis balls is offered as a derogatory gesture from the Dauphin of France.
Although the entire cast works hard to keep the energy flowing, it dips when Harrington is not on stage, partly because scenes that provide comedy relief are either overly long, or could be omitted altogether. Part of the problem is the play’s energy source. It comes from its characters who are in positions of authority and the power dialogue used to intimidate invading armies. When such dialogue is lacking, so does the play lack.
As France prepares for England’s invasion, scenes in the French court are spoken in French with an off-side placement of screen translations that pare down Shakespeare’s prose. The French-speaking actors use overblown gestures to ensure the audience understands their plight, but it belittles the gravity of the situation, while adding thinly placed comic relief to a dire situation.
Especially contrived is the scene that occurs right before the intermission. A noose is placed around a soldier’s neck (Claire-Louise Cordwell), who is then slowly hoisted, awash in severe white light (Lee Curran), kicking out and gurgling for breath until her body is still and lifeless.
The moment I saw the noose, I knew its appearance signalled an intermission, and that the intention was to leave the audience disturbed and in shock while they sipped their pre-ordered drinks at the theatre bar.
So much more effective would have been to end the scene when the noose was being placed around the soldier’s neck and to leave the audience with its own image of what is about to happen.
What works marvelously well is the stage setting. Designer Fly Davis’ elongated, three-step copper-gold staircase covers the breadth of the stage and serves as a nightclub, a battlefield to display broken bodies, and as the royal chambers of both England and France. It eliminates the need for stage furniture, except for the odd chair.
Finally, Andrzej Goulding’s video design provides continual blown-up, back-drop images of the monarchs in both England and France as each speaks of war and their nation’s fate. Reminiscent of the Caesar’s in Ancient Rome, these images serve to enhance the dominant themes of power and authority that drive the play.
Overall, Henry V is an uneven production, replete with too many modern-day interpretations of Shakespeare we’ve seen before, but it is worth a visit to Donmar Warehouse, just for the incredibly poignant delivery of the Bard’s lines by Kit Harrington, who’s surprised us all.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Shakespeare’s ever-popular play is a thrilling study of nationalism, war and the psychology of power.
Kit Harington leads the cast in an exciting modern production directed by Donmar Associate Director Max Webster, exploring what it means to be English and our relationship to Europe, asking: do we ever get the leaders we deserve?
Please note, this production contains strobe lights, flashing lights, loud noise, smoke and strong language.
Part 1: 1 hour 25 minutes
Interval: 20 minutes
Part 2: 1 hour 15 minutes
17th February to 9th April 2022