It’s been a good year for history plays. From Edward II at the National, to Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Company to Henry V at the Noel Coward’s, they form a perfect chronological line (even if we leapfrogged over Henry IV), which means I can play silly games: John Heffernan is David Tennant’s great-grandfather and David Tennant is Jude Law’s uncle. It’s not every day you can say that.
Silly games aside, how does Michael Grandage’s production of Henry V fare in comparison? Not too badly it turns out, even if it doesn’t scale the dizzy heights of love I feel for the other two productions. It’s an involving if unambiguous version of the play, and what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in fluency and immediacy. I would have liked a more searching reading, but the production’s pull and drive is undeniable.
Jude Law commands stage and language (not to mention subjects) easily. His Henry V is not complex or questioning, but his straightforward commitment is winning and his steering speeches are underpinned by a warm and intelligent presence.
I was underwhelmed by his soliloquy of introspection and responsibility in Act IV because this man of action and emotion didn’t seem suited to these thoughts and the speech felt flat. He is also occasionally prone to decorative posturing, but some of it is a problem with the production (more about it later). In many ways though, he saves the best for last: his seduction scene with Princess Katharine unlocks a deliciously funny and engagingly awkward side to his king. Maybe Jude Law should try a Shakespeare comedy next. Or any comedy for that matter.
The remaining cast is strong with unsurprising stand-outs in Ron Cook and Noma Dumezweni. Ron Cook as Pistol demonstrates the comic dexterity that comes so easy to him but without losing an undercurrent of wisdom. Dumezweni as Alice and as Mistress Quickly radiates warmth and her every tiny movement ripples with life.
Christopher Oram’s set, two simple wooden panels hugging the stage in a semicircle, is reminiscent of his work at the Donmar’s King Lear, especially in the texture of the white peeling wood. This simplicity has its own dynamic, and the set drives the action around the stage like ditches driving the flow of water.
Yet the production has two problems. One baffling decision bothered me throughout: while costumes are traditional and within the historical context, the Chorus, played by Ashley Zhangazha, is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Even more strangely, he eventually takes the role of the Boy and becomes part of the story but without any attempt to conceal or change the modern costume. The bizarre sight of a young man in jeans and a rucksack talking to men in armour and cockpieces has a distancing effect. Nothing that happens in his scenes seems quite real.
Which leads to the second problem: A decorative picturesque quality (nice visuals, warm lighting, scenes arranged in a tableau) runs through the production, which only emphasises the bloodless, non-committal approach to the horrors of battle. War is not so much matter-of-fact as is emotionally absent. The soldiers are like rugby players performing the haka, and the battle like a chess game, two pushes forward, one push back, but the horror is largely absent.
It all makes for an engaging nice evening in the theatre, but for this tale of war, maybe a little too nice.