by William Shakespeare
Directed by Max Webster
Donmar Warehouse – until 9 April 2022
One of the many fascinating things about Shakespeare’s history play is the ambiguity of the central figure. As a principal character Henry is infinitely malleable, and depending on your point of view, can be seen as hero or villain. This thrilling Donmar revival comes at a particularly interesting time in global history, where an unchecked leader invading a neighbouring country on which he has no authentic claim (in this instance, Henry V and his army going into France) is likely to provoke a particularly vehement reaction.
By casting Kit Harington, one of those rare actors who, like James McAvoy, combines being drop dead gorgeous with an innate everyman likability yet tempered with a certain wildness, Max Webster’s visceral, modern dress, multimedia production muddies the waters to intriguing effect. This is a Henry V driven by the cult of personality: Harington’s pale, chiselled face is projected huge on the back wall of Fly Davis’s striking, monolithic set as Henry’s armies lay waste to France (movement director Benoit Swan Pouffer achieves a kind of balletic brutality).
Harington’s Henry is equally convincing coldly dismissing Falstaff (superb Steven Meo, who also doubles as a highly effective Llewelyn, formerly Fluellen in more traditional readings of the text) as he is affably chatting incognito to his dormant troops in battle camps. This King is a thrilling, populist rabble rouser (the “once more unto the breach” call to battle is delivered from a high gantry with simultaneous video coverage while the troops chomp at the bit below) who suddenly turns utterly repellent as he casually orders the slaughter of the French prisoners. Webster’s slick but dangerous staging is unflinching in it’s depiction of the atrocities of conflict (the first act ends with a particularly distressing hanging scene, carried out beneath the exact same gantry from which Henry galvanised the troops) and is perhaps the most overtly ‘anti-war’ take on any of Shakespeare’s History plays that I have ever seen. It may prove too confrontational for some people, but it is damn fine theatre.
Harington’s is a memorable, really satisfying take on the title role: he has the rare gift of making the Shakespearean language sound relatable and conversational, while still respecting it’s cadences and idiosyncrasies, and successfully binds numerous facets of this sometimes elusive character into one dynamic, charismatic whole.
The majority of the supporting cast are at a similar level of brilliance. The women in the cast are terrific, often taking on roles usually played by men in such a strongly male driven text, and it’s so superbly done that it becomes a potent testimony to gender-blind casting. I was particularly taken with Kate Duchêne’s bossy, bolshy French Constable and Melissa Johns, funny and poignant as the soldier who unwittingly mouths off about the King to Henry in disguise and is then forced to eat their words. Claire-Louise Cordwell does fine, vivid work in a couple of roles but especially as a gender-swapped Bardolph, reconceived here as a drug-dealing squeeze to Prince Hal. Millicent Wong is a haunting, insistent presence as the Chorus.
All of the sections set in the court of France are performed in French, which initially feels a bit gimmicky but pays dividends in the courtship scene between Henry and Princess Katherine (a glorious Anoushka Lucas, entrancing and fiercely intelligent). Olivier Huband is a magnificently disaffected Dauphin, and Jude Akuwudike’s King has real emotional heft and dignity.
The employment of a quartet of classical singers wandering like phantoms through the action, their beautiful, calming voices in stark juxtaposition with the brutality unfolding is extremely powerful. Lee Curran’s lighting transforms the space from acidic urban exteriors to coolly elegant interiors to the ghostly horrors of the battlefield with such dexterity that it’s almost an extra character in the play. Andrzej Goulding’s projections are used with intelligence and economy.
Anybody who reckons Shakespeare is boring and irrelevant (and yes there are still some people who think that!) should see this urgent, sometimes upsetting, consistently enthralling take: if you can possibly get a return don’t hesitate. It further consolidates Max Webster’s reputation as one of the most interesting directors of his generation and makes one impatient to see what Shakespeare lead Kit Harington will take on next. An unsettling triumph.