Wasn’t it Bonnie Tyler who said, I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night; he’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight? I think it was. And if there’s one thing Britain could do with right now, it’s a national hero. Someone to lead us once more into the breach, someone to get their hands dirty in the fight scenes. Someone to stir our desires, raise our spirits, smack our heads together and put us back on the right route. We need a King Harry!
And Headlong, in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe, the Leeds Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, have done their darndest to give us one, in the form of Oliver Johnstone as the eponymous warrior King. But this King Henry is no straightforward military machine. He’s a complex soul. Quirkily opening with a scene from Act IV of Henry IV Part II, we see that he’s hungry for power, taking the crown off his father before he’s even dead; but he’s also riddled with self-doubt. In a fascinating reading of the role, every time the king makes a great decision or rallies the troops with a stirring speech, afterwards, he doubles up in internal agonies.
His famous breach speech at the siege of Harfleur starts with him cowering on the floor, slowly daring to build in confidence as his words hit home. Not so much whooping up his fighting men, he’s actually using the speech to bestow strength on himself. It’s only when the French are fully defeated, and he’s taken the land he wants, that he relaxes – to an extent; his self-doubt is replaced with a short temper and an even shorter fuse. Normally, that final scene where he woos Katherine is treated as light relief and an insight into the more human aspect of Henry’s personality. Not in this production. He’s as snappy as a crocodile that’s just been given bad news.
But what am I doing, starting at the end? Let’s go back to the beginning. Holly Race Roughan’s production has sliced away many of the unnecessary fripperies, to bring us a Henry V that’s lean, direct, clear and in your face. None of this muse of fire nonsense, that’s out; no Archbishops and bishops nattering on the sidelines. Instead, it concentrates on the action, the motives, and the arguments. A few words with his brothers and his uncle and it’s straight in with the French Ambassadors and the mocking tennis balls. To help us keep up with this extremely pacey production, the cast frequently announce the change of scene and tell us which characters they are playing. Brecht would have loved it. And it’s a simple device that works incredibly well. Traditionally Henry V has been considered the most patriotic of plays, right down to Churchill using Lord Olivier’s famous performance in the 1944 film for wartime propaganda purposes. This production excels at bringing out the question of responsibility in war, and the consequences of marching into other countries’ territory – it reveals the nationalistic pettiness that can have so much influence on people’s behaviour.
You may have gathered that if you’re a Shakespeare purist, this is probably not the production for you. I’m not sure that the immortal bard would have expected the new King to be greeted with a rousing chorus of God Save Our Gracious King, nor would Pistol have called Fluellen a Welsh C*nt. Nor is it that likely that the Dauphin and Orleans would have had such a – shall we say – close bromance. But Shakespeare’s big and strong enough to look after himself; he’s been performed for the last four hundred years, and he’ll certainly be performed for the next four hundred. So no need to get anxious on his behalf.
Moi Tran’s simple set consists of two rows of chairs either side of the stage that the cast occupy whilst they’re not actually involved in a scene, in front of a big green ruffled curtain that occasionally rises to reveal a nicely antiqued mirror wall, perfect for the King’s soul-searching speeches. It’s a deliberately small and plain set; you can look around the back and the sides to see the backstage gubbins and people occasionally walking around. It adds to the sense of performance right here right now – tonight, in this very theatre, in front of this very audience, ten people have come together to tell the story of Henry V. It’s up to us to interpret what we see and let our imaginations run riot within the wooden O. It’s what the Chorus would have wanted, if his opening speech had been kept. The artificiality of the presentation is highlighted in the very final scene – again, not written by Shakespeare – which brings the story fully into 21st century Britain. It involves an official, someone trying to take British Citizenship, and a vacuum cleaner. I’ll say no more.
The whole show is extremely slickly presented and performed by an excellent ensemble who dovetail beautifully into their respective roles and scenes. Oliver Johnstone is excellent as Henry, at times meek and uncertain, at others bombastic and cruel. He gives a great reading of the text – clear, emotional and nuanced; in the scene, for example, where he realises he has been betrayed by his friend Scroop, he treads the finest of lines between fury and pure sadness. He’s really going to miss his old buddy – but it won’t stop him from choking him to death.
Helena Lymbery is outstanding as King Henry IV, and Henry’s uncle Exeter – a true support and enforcer who will stand for no nonsense. I really enjoyed the performance by Jon Furlong as Bardolph – if there is one stand-out moment of the play it’s probably the end of Act One and the death of Bardolph; a superb piece of theatricality. Joshua Griffin is great as the belligerent Fluellen, and Eleanor Henderson is also terrific as the obnoxiously entitled Prince Louis. And Geoffrey Lumb beautifully conveys the range of emotions faced by the King of France as he at first defends his country but then realises when he has been beaten. But the whole cast do a first rate job of clearly, succinctly, and punchily bringing this 16th century play to life. The show continues in the Royal auditorium until 18th March.
Production photos by Ant Robling