Henry V

Reviewer's Rating

Henry V is the last of the productions in Michael Grandage’s theatrical tour-de-force at the Noel Coward Theatre. The play, one of Shakespeare’s simplest in terms of plot, follows King Henry V of England in the events that lead up to the Battle of Agincourt, and its aftermath. There is evidence, at the beginning of the play, of the dregs of Henry’s former life as the unruly Prince Hal, as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II. A melancholy reference to Falstaff dying offstage, indicates a farewell to adolescence, and a welcome of adulthood and its responsibilities. The play depicts the shaking off of Henry’s immaturity, as he fulfils the role of King he has been assigned to play. Jude Law excels in Henry V, alternating successfully between forceful god-like warrior and leader of the English army, and a mere mortal, with the responsibility of England and its people weighing heavily on his shoulders. Law sensitively conveys one of the probing questions at the heart of Henry V- what does it mean to be king? Is a king divinely appointed, assigned by God to lead a nation? Or is a king someone with the spirit and heart to lead a nation through their darkest moments, emerging unified and glorious?
Such epic themes are difficult to contain on any stage. This set was a sparse, rough circle of wooden boards, and allowed the play to evoke the drama and pace of the battle with ease, using the language rather than gimmicky effects to convey the impossible. Closer than one might suspect to how the play would have been staged originally, the speech delivery was laid bare, evoking the thousands of Englishmen poised in the wings, awaiting battle.
The play flirts continually with its own self-reference, as the chorus, played by the extremely talented Ashley Zhangazha assisted in evoking the battle of Agincourt through his eloquent, fast-paced and evocative speeches. Solely in modern dress against a medieval backdrop, he is singled out as our interpreter, our guide. Pistol, (Ron Cook) was humorous and bawdy, but nonetheless discovered the pathos of his tragic ending, as he staggered offstage. Matt Ryan as Fluellen and Christopher Heyward as Macmorris provided strong performances to match Law’s.
The standout scene was reserved until the very end of the play, as Henry attempts to woo Princess Katherine of France (Jessie Buckley) in a mixture of English and broken French. Whilst the previous scene with Princess Katherine and her nurse (Noma Dumezweni) was somewhat laboured, and in need of a raise of tempo, the wooing scene more than made up for this. The comedy and intimate affection at the end of an epic play of warfare is a remarkable edition, and takes you by surprise, even if you know the plot. Beautiful dialogue exchange between the lovers permits Law with an opportunity to bring his warrior king down from his pedestal, to a young, bashful man in love with a beautiful woman.