There was a sense of camaraderie in the air at the performance of Henry V at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre that fell on the eve of the European Referendum result. Perhaps it was the charm of the leafy outdoor space and the late evening birdsong. Or maybe it was the rain that kicked in after a couple of scenes; nothing brings the Great British public together like huddling in waterproof ponchos in some drizzle. But, more likely, it was the feeling that we were all on the brink of a battle and we were all, like Henry’s troops, feeling a little bit daunted. Although the programme expresses the hope that the production will prove timely in the run up to the Chilcot verdict, this play is, at its core, about an idea of England and the lengths people will go to defend that, making it more relevant now than ever in our post-Brexit political landscape.
Despite its timeliness the night gets off to a slow start, although it feels almost sacrilegious to call an opening in which a woman is crowned King dull. But then suddenly this Henry V, with Michelle Terry in the lead role, is explosive, and quite literally. Guns fire, troops stomp through muddy puddles, and one poor soldier pukes his guts up right out into the audience. The production erupts from its run-of-the-mill beginning into a terrifying battle scene that’s genuinely shocking and seriously powerful, Terry striding out in camo gear, wrapped in smoke and an air of triumph. Later the combat becomes increasingly stylised, John Ross’ movement direction making the war beautiful to watch without lessening its horrifying impact.
Terry’s characterisation is as superb as her verse delivery throughout. First a nervous woman in dowdy tweed handed the crown by the encouraging Chorus (Charlotte Cornwell), she becomes a stoic warrior as King Henry on the battlefield, then a steely negotiator in the wooing scene. The brutalities of war have rarely been so palpably realised as in Robert Hastie’s production but Terry seems above it all save for a few moments of prayer and muted, but excruciating, anguish. When, for example, Bardolph (Bobby Delaney) is brutally executed on stage by a firing squad, Exeter (Ryan Ellsworth) has tears running down his face but Terry’s Henry, diminutive by comparison, is no weak and feeble woman – she has the heart and stomach of a King through and through.
Overall, Hastie’s is a solid Henry V, punctuated by real insight into the text and some striking visuals. It’s a great victory to make this play feel new and crucial, and the greatest achievement of all is the casting. Sometimes gender blind – as with Terry and Ben Wiggins, who gives stunning performances as both the Boy and Princess Katherine, and sometimes gender reversed – as with the army captains, including Catrin Aaron as a brilliant Fluellen, the casting opens up the play to many fascinating new interpretations. A female King might not be everyone’s cup of tea but Michelle Terry is one of our greatest Shakespeareans and this thoroughly modern Henry V shows just what can be done with Shakespeare when directors push at the edges of the canon.