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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Noel Coward


  Jude Law/ Ph: Johan Persson

Any production of Henry V inevitably becomes a barometer of the public’s prevailing attitude to war. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version, famously made as a morale booster for WWII troops, was funded by the British government as propaganda. Forty-five years later, the 1989 Kenneth Branagh film – made in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain shortly before the first Gulf War – was grittier but still triumphalist, critically acclaimed for Branagh’s emotionally stirring delivery of the call to arms.
Then a succession of disastrous Middle East expeditions intervened. As a result the play has been revealed – as Shakespeare originally intended – to have more negative overtones. The National Theatre’s production in 2003, made during the second Gulf War and starring Adrian Lester as its acclaimed first black Henry V, was the real turning point. Nicholas Hytner’s production was a piece of savagely angry satire, showing the king as a brutal and bloodthirsty leader taking his troops on a reckless campaign from which no one could emerge triumphant.
A decade after that benchmark production, Michael Grandage’s nuanced, beautifully designed Henry V reveals us to be in another era still – showing up the text’s multiple ambiguities. Syria has shown, even to the majority against intervention, that not to become involved at all carries its own consequences. No one knows what the right answer is, but the use of the West’s military strength is not as demonized as it was by the liberal majority in 2003. So it seems little coincidence that Jude Law’s Henry is once more sympathetic, exhibiting a steely pragmatism and a humility at the same time. He is a fast-thinking warrior king who will not be dictated to by foreign powers but who openly displays his discomfort at the suffering caused even as he steps up to the challenge.
Christopher Oram’s deceptively simple set – which initially looks like half of the ‘wooden O’ of the infamous Henry V prologue – proves to be an ingenious composition of concealed panels and hidden doors. After Ashley Zhangazha’s Union Jack t-shirt clad chorus declaims the prologue, Henry V and his court are revealed as if by magic in a chamber at the back of the stage, clad in rich reds and purples and bathed in golden candlelight. What’s immediately striking about Law is the physicality of his performance. His movement is fluid and dynamic, and there’s no sense that he’s constrained by the formality of power. As you might expect from a king who’s had to shed his bad-boy image to exert authority, there’s a sense that he’s constantly learning from the situation around him. Law’s performance therefore allows you to see how his aliveness to the constantly evolving power play from both his superiors and subordinates gives him an advantage that is crucial to his victory.
There is strong comedy as well as pathos from the supporting cast. Ron Cook’s Pistol and Matt Ryan’s Fluellen ensure that the spirit of Falstaff endures, even though we hear of him only from his deathbed. Law’s clear amusement every time Ryan’s hot-headed Fluellen goes off on a rant is part of the enjoyable generosity of his performance. The courtship scene with Jessie Buckley’s Princess Katharine is a delightful demonstration of elegant slapstick on both sides – Law playing against type to prove his character’s discomfort in the company of women, and Buckley managing to combine innocence with knowing amusement. It’s the lightly gilded icing on the cake – a perfect complement to a beautifully thought-out and executed production, as notable for its deft clarity as for its subtle response to our complicated times.


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