4 stars out of 5
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
In this coruscating production from Headlong and Shakespeare’s Globe, Henry’s grasp for power is cast in a stark light
Heady need to be seen as strong … Oliver Johnstone as Henry V. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
The king is weeping as his subjects sing his praises. In this dynamic co-production between Headlong and Shakespeare’s Globe, Oliver Johnstone’s gentle, troubled Henry transforms under the weight of power, his “soft mercy” slowly turning venomous.
Amid the golden candle glow, Holly Race Roughan’s finely tuned production starts at the end of Henry IV part II, with Harry’s father’s final piece of advice to his son: “Busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” When a single tennis ball is sent to mock him from the Prince of France, Henry’s need to overpower the French becomes a way to prove his strength – to himself, his dead father, and his bleeding country.
The newly crowned king dances between his gut-deep desire to be merciful and his heady need to be seen as strong. After a moment of violence, he berates himself, sickened by what he’s done. Rather than a rallying cry to his people, his instruction to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” is given only to himself, his weaknesses reflected back at him in Moi Tran’s beautifully grubby, bronze set.
Running at pace to war … Oliver Johnstone, top, and Joshua Griffin in Henry V at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian
Henry’s cruelty comes to a head in a blazing scene between the Queen of France (Eleanor Henderson) and Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies), as Katherine is given to Henry. She recoils from him and he aggressively twists her neck for a kiss. When he leaves, Katherine’s frantic plea to her mother to help her learn English becomes desperate, the words – for hand, neck, nails – blurring amid her tears.
With dramaturg Cordelia Lynn’s precise, clarifying cuts, we run at pace to war. The battle is fought by a fantastic ensemble taking multiple roles who delightfully embrace the artifice of it all. When they call on us to “Behold the threaden sails / Borne with the invisible and creeping wind”, the company offers the stage as a make-believe space to grapple with these impossible questions of goodness and nationhood, as a chance to challenge our history through play.
The invented, modern finale draws a neat line between Henry’s England and our own. We’re still forcing foreigners to give in, this production suggests, still clutching a hand on their neck, digging in our nails, until we arbitrarily decide we are satisfied. This is a coruscating production about the desperate grasp for power, and how it does no man or country any good.
This stripped back production speaks with new and unusual clarity
This drastically edited, dramatically stripped back production allows Shakespeare’s study of kingship to speak with new and unusual clarity. Oliver Johnstone’s Henry V is no nationalist hero but a complex figure learning the brutal rules of monarchy and war on the job. It’s performed on a stage bare apart from a few chairs, with a largely young cast in everyday clothes playing multiple roles. And it’s intense.
Instead of the Chorus’s usual rousing “Oh for a muse of fire” speech, the action begins in darkness, with a dying King Henry IV. His heir knows that the crown is an ambiguous prize, but after an admirably brisk and coherent instruction in international relations he decides to claim France.
In most versions the warrior king immediately shrugs off his younger, wastrel self, but here the transition is more uneven and credible. Unmasking an early assassination plot at home he doesn’t just condemn the conspirators but strangles his old friend Scroop himself. Once on French soil he performs the “once more unto the breach” speech alone, in a foetal crouch, as if willing himself rather than his soldiers forward.
His threats of rape and pillage on the citizens of Harfleur inevitably recall current Russian atrocities in Ukraine, as does the church-robbing for which the villainous Bardolph – a friend of Henry’s younger days – is hanged. This king can be merciful but also implacable, wilful and cruel.
In victory he is almost hysterical, the triumph of Agincourt won at the cost of his two brothers. His wooing of the defeated French King’s daughter Katherine (Joséphine Callies) in English while she speaks French, usually played for charm and laughs, becomes a brutal act of kingly coercion.
Headlong’s artistic director Holly Race Roughan helms this co-production with the Globe, Leeds Playhouse and Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatres. She fillets the text with great skill: the realities of battle mean Henry can’t even finish his “we happy few” harangue. She’s probing a concept of English nationalism that’s been imposed on the play, rather than making any definitive statement, I think.
Nervy strings accompany Henry’s emotional journey. Designer Moi Tran’s set features green chairs and a green ruched rear curtain that rises to reveal a tarnished wall of mirrors. Her programme note suggests this is commenting in some way on empire and environment: but if you didn’t read it, you wouldn’t know it.
Although the Wanamaker Playhouse is candlelit as usual, there are supplementary lights: it’s good that the Globe’s indoor and outdoor spaces aren’t tied to convention.
The strains of God Save the King drift through the action but there’s little attempt to draw explicit parallels with the Britain of today until the end. I’m sure the closing scene, where Katherine is given a citizenship test by an immigration official, while a cleaner vacuums the stage around them, will annoy some. But it’s a typically bold ending to a fresh and vivid interpretation.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There’s no “muse of fire” prologue in this boldly political new Henry V, a co-production with Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate. Instead we are plunged into darkness to hear the coughing Henry IV in his death throes at the end of the preceding play, warning his son to keep his hands off the crown (“Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee”). It’s just one of several eye-catching changes in Holly Race Roughan’s production, the biggest of which is saved for last.
Ghosts proliferate the action, as Oliver Johnstone’s Henry oscillates wildly between warrior king and tortured soul. In one especially striking moment he throttles the traitorous Lord Scroop (Darmesh Patel) to death with his bare hands, and then sees him in the guise of a succession of messengers (all played by Patel). His inner torment is summarised by his delivery of the ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech, which starts as a Hamlet-esque soliloquy and crescendos into a raucous wrestling match.
The meta-theatricality that’s lost with the excising of the prologue is in some sense restored by the cast reading out scene numbers and character names (“Enter Pistol” etc). And the Brechtian feel is further enhanced by the actors – who are costumed like hipsters, all trainers and beanies – sitting on benches either side of the stage for the opening scenes (it’s reminiscent of the excellent Metamorphoses here last year, which Roughan co-directed).
Contemporary resonances are everywhere, from the football fan-esque singing of “God Save the King” to the production’s emphasis on war crimes committed by an invading force. Henry’s botched seduction of a very young Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies) meanwhile takes on a much darker edge, and the aforementioned ending makes a very on-the-nose comparison between our attitude to foreigners then and now.
The design of Moi Tran sees a bucolic green backcloth pulled back to reveal a coldly industrial wall as the fleet sails to France, while the tension of the invasion is nicely ratcheted up by Max Pappenheim’s music, played by a four-strong band that includes a Swedish nyckelharpa. The candles in the Sam Wanamaker (this is the play’s debut in the space) are subtly complemented by artificial light flooding through a roof hatch. This is a production that seamlessly blends classical and contemporary.
The fine ensemble is particularly impressive with the production’s more physical passages. They shimmy up and down ladders on the back wall and merrily kick seven bells out of each other. Much of this is at the behest of Johnstone’s snarling, psychotic Henry, who goads them on and seems to relish violence (rarely will you see a tennis ball used so menacingly). Other standouts include Eleanor Henderson as a gamut of French characters including Prince Louis, Jon Furlong as the pitiful Bardolph, and Helena Lymbery as the haunting Henry IV.
All told it’s about as far away from the jingoism of the Olivier interpretation as you’ll get. Which chimes with a time when Britain’s view of itself is currently, to put it mildly, in the balance. Although at times it feels the text (dramaturgy is by Cordelia Lynn) has been overly contorted to the vision, there is no doubting its power. Never before have I found the play so discomfiting.