Henry V: Theater Review

Johan Persson
Jude Law in 'Henry V"
An intelligent, no-frills presentation of Shakespeare’s best-known war story that packs a nice clean punch.

Jude Law shines as part of the “band of brothers” in Michael Grandage’s production, closing a highly successful West End season.

LONDON -- Michael Grandage and Jude Law make a good team. Under Grandage’s direction at the Donmar Warehouse, in a production of Hamlet that subsequently transferred to Broadway, Law's take on the Danish Prince impressed many with its subtlety, virility and smarts, especially when judged against the yardstick of most film stars on stage. Now the two have reteamed for Henry V, along with a fair few of the cast and crew from the company that made Hamlet a success. While there’s less element of surprise this time round, this no-frills ensemble production still packs a nice clean punch.

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It’s a fine way to end a lucrative, star-studded, five-play season that the Michael Grandage Company has mounted at the Noel Coward Theatre over the past 15 months, a run that seems to have succeeded in its stated aim of luring a new generation to the theater. (According to publicity, over 30 percent of the audience has been first-time bookers.) Ticket buyers may have come just to see stars like Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw or Daniel Radcliffe on stage in the season’s four other productions -- Privates on Parade, Peter and Alice, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but perhaps they’ve gone away with a desire to see more stagecraft after sampling the pleasures well-crafted theater can provide.

If it weren’t for the fact that Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s better-known, more frequently adapted plays, this might make a slightly forbidding introduction to a total theater newbie from the suburbs who only came to check out Law’s codpiece. (Impressively padded, for those of you who were interested.) Viewers really will need to “work” on their “imaginary forces,” per the instructions of the Chorus (Ashley Zhangazha), given the austerity of the raked stage here, a sparse shell with hidden doors and cutaways constructed from what looks like lichen-encrusted planks. The woodwork takes on interesting hues according to the needs of Neil Austin’s lighting design.  

Law had what sounded like a stumble or two on press night in his first big scene as he and the court weigh up the prospects of going to war with France. But once he got into his stride, his Henry emerges with a brash swagger, his sometimes Estuary-inflected accent suggesting a common touch, especially in the later scenes where he rallies his troops. There’s a touch of the gangster about him, which harmonizes with the character’s carousing, party-boy image in Henry IV parts 1 and 2.

Law projects beautifully, even when his characteristic rasp is to the fore, and bellows heartily during the big shouty speeches. His “Once more unto the breach” monologue lacks a little modulation, but the key pre-battle rally cry -- the “we few, we happy few” speech -- builds and recedes and builds again like a wave, holding its own against the high-water marks set by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in the film versions.

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Better still, he brings great charm to the last courtship scene, suggesting he might be a better lover than a fighter, and has twinkling chemistry with Jessie Buckley as Princess Katherine. The latter strikes the delicate balance between coquette and queen-in-the-making with judicious tact. Through elegant gestures and intonation she makes the earlier English-lesson scene with Noma Dumezweni as Alice (who does double-duty as a touching Mistress Quickly) entirely accessible and charming, even for those with rusty French. Indeed, the cast cohere gracefully throughout as an ensemble, staying in tune with one another for the duration. Of the supports, most valuable players include James Laurenson as a commanding, regal Exeter, and Ron Cook as the cocksure, pugnacious Pistol.

Thematically, the production doesn’t have any big subtext up its sleeve, unlike Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 modern-dress staging starring Adrian Lester which offered a near-direct commentary on the war in Iraq. In keeping with the uncluttered Elizabethan costumes, Grandage has opted here to play it straight down the line, letting this stand as a history play in every sense, referencing the times in which it was set and made and little else. It’s a sly, sinuous play which can equally serve the purposes of jingoistic patriots (see the Olivier version) and pacifists (pace Hytner or Branagh) alike, leaving the audience to make up its own mind.  

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, London (runs through Feb. 15)
Cast: Jude Law, Ashley Zhangazha, James Laurenson, Jason Baughan, Norman Bowman, Ron Cook, Jessie Buckley, Noma Dumezweni, Matt Ryan, Christopher Heyward, Ben Lloyd-Hughes
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Grandage
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Movement director: Michael Ashcroft
Presented by The Michael Grandage Company