Henry V is the greatest war play ever written and is the template for all literary responses to conflict since produced. It is the perfect mix of diplomacy gone wrong, of kings and princes vying for conquest, of the burden of leadership and the price of betray. Shakespeare’s play is an exploration of causes and consequences of war, of heritage and dynasty, of honour and glory in the field while being honest about the violence and havoc it causes to civilians, their homes and the landscape. But most of all, Henry V is a play about how war affects all social classes within the army, from the fears and questions of conscience that afflict the boys and private soldiers at the bottom through the commanders and to the man who made it all happen who in one person represents both the terrible and the human face of war.
And its influence is inestimable. It is impossible to avoid the direct connection between Wilfred Owen’s vivid descriptions expressed in the evocative vocabulary of damage and destruction in his First World War poetry and the haunting scene-setting of the Chorus on the night before Agincourt as the ‘creeping murmur and the pouring dark’ descend like a cloak of gloomy anticipation over the English soldiers. And that opportunity to contemplate the soul as men await the terrible events ahead, common to the representation of conflict in popular culture, begins with Henry V and that all-too-recognisable concern about a just war.
Max Webster’s new production for the Donmar Warehouse, set in modern dress, understands the wide-ranging themes of Shakespeare’s play and, across a very swift three hours, triumphantly balances the unstoppable march to war with character development and some of the playwright’s richest verses filled with potent symbolism and stark imagery. Staged on tiered golden steps that become increasingly tarnished by the bloody business of fighting, Webster’s show is a powerful experience, filling the gaps between Shakespeare’s words by providing just enough context to bring the play to life and on the audiences’ ‘imaginary forces work.’
It opens with lights up as Millicent Wong’s Chorus beseeches the viewer to suspend their disbelief and pretend events are really happening before us, a feat that proves easy to achieve as Webster’s production ensues with a thriller-like pace which barely slackens. The first piece of context comes almost immediately with the addition of a scene from Henry IV – Part II in which the drunken Prince Hal carouses with his friends at a nightclub before hearing of the death of his father and leaving his lowly pals for good. It’s a trick Kenneth Branagh employed in his 1989 film version to quickly provide backstory in what is here a standalone play, allowing anyone unfamiliar with the earlier works to instantly understand some of the decisions the new King Henry V will shortly make about his former compatriots.
Important innovations include the decision to play all of the court scenes where no English characters are present in French with subtitle boards providing a translation. It is an insightful choice, one the really underlines the ‘otherness’ of the enemy here while bringing extra credibility to the scenes in which Catherine learns English – during a boxercise session – and in which the awkward lovers attempt to communicate in the broken phraseology of each other’s native tongue. Andrew T. Mackay’s choral and operatic score is also superbly atmospheric and integral to the story, working with the modern conflict design to make it feel as epic and grandiose as Shakespeare’s text while also providing a haunting bass note that opens up the emotional impact of the battle scenes.
Webster also makes swift work of the complex speech in which Jude Akuwudike’s Bishop explains the Salic law that validates Henry’s claim to France. Presented as a (slightly fancier) PowerPoint presentation, this crucial contextual information that justifies military action is shown in family trees and maps that skip along without weighing down the energy of this early part of the play. The extent to which the King of England is right is immediately muddied by the entrance of the Dauphin’s messenger with the infamous tennis balls and, clearly here in the Donmar’s production, Henry’s perhaps impetuous decision-making haunts him and his army for the rest of the play.
Shakespeare largely sets battle scenes off stage so how much time should be given over to recreating some of that action can be difficult for a production to pitch. Here, Webster’s choices emerge from a close reading of the text and the sequence of events within the two major confrontations with French forces. Shakespeare puts the audience in the middle of the action at Harfleur as Henry whips his men into a frenzy as they advance ‘once more unto the breech’. Fly Davis creates a gantry that lowers into place amid the frenzy of smoke, low light and bodies pouring through a gap in the rear wall to emphasise this key moment in which the newly inspired English regroup. But Webster retains most of the impact of these techniques for Agincourt itself and a longer sequence of warplay.
Shakespeare structures this pivotal battle in waves of action interspersed with discussions and discoveries that tell the audience how the fighting unfolds, creating greater drama and suspense as the audience wait to see who will win. Benoit Swan Pouffer creates some tight but evocative movement pieces as actors dressed in flak jackets with guns move in formations around the space to indicate the different stages of the chaotic and immersive battle. It never looks like dance but it is precisely coordinated, reinforcing the prestige of the English tactics in the creation of a distinctly stylistic but nonetheless physical encounter between the opponents.
Scene setting established, Webster’s greatest achievement is to fully excavate the complex and changing dimensions of the King’s character, and while earlier interpretations may have emphasised his unimpeachable glory and heroism, Webster’s show mines Shakespeare’s actually rather ambiguous hero to create a far more satisfying and ultimately tarnished novice monarch desperately trying to assume a mantle of kingship that fits perhaps more easily than he would like to admit.
The character of Henry and his true motivation is one of the play’s biggest mysteries. We fully believe he has thrown-off his youthful ardour for a more sober, responsible form of kingship yet Shakespeare presents a protagonist whose moral compass allows him to be deeply merciful when he needs to be but also phenomenally cold, even cruel when required. At Harfleur he talks the governor into surrendering by threatening rape and pillage if the town fails to concede, passing the fault and blame for that course of action onto the Frenchman. Later, he swiftly calls for the brutal death of an old friend accused of stealing, insisting on a contrasting moral code in which civilians and their property should remain unharmed. Is Henry willing to carry out his threats or, is he merely posturing and politicking for effect – and is either a credible quality?
We see the same swift sense of justice when he discovers the murder of the boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – an act that defies the protocols of war – prompting a shocking response that even his own men argue is not only ethically wrong but disproportionate. His subsequent ‘rough wooing’ of Princess Catherine is equally ambiguous, taking on a demanding entitlement which begins as inept soldierly love but becomes something far more toxic. Suddenly, Henry’s response to the disrespectful gift of tennis balls in Act One that questions his kingship may not be quite so clear cut. Is he a merciful or merciless man or something in between.
Unlike other Shakespearean protagonists, crucially, Henry is given almost no opportunity to account for himself or commune with his soul alone on stage. For three acts, the audience sees Henry only in the company of others or by their report, so while Hamlet and even the murderous Macbeth have unpacked their hearts and troubles over and over by the equivalent points in their own stories, Henry has been remarkably silent. Only on the eve of Agincourt is he given one lone soliloquy in which to explore his conscience and reflect on what it means to be a man and the burden of kingship when so many lives rest entirely in his hands. And even here, Shakespeare has primed the audience to once again question the legitimacy of his war through one of the private soldiers he speaks to before this singular moment of self-reflection. The next time we see Henry, he delivers the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech and he never considers his actions again.
Forget Jon Snow or his earlier theatre work because this is easily Kit Harrington’s finest career performance on stage or screen with a deep and nuanced understanding of these complexities in Henry’s personality and presentation. Harrington is an incredibly controlled Henry (and certainly Harry no longer), calmly and coldly appraising situations before striking a fatal blow with a quiet but distinct menace. There is a deep rage in this Henry that is largely held in check yet in delivering the political speeches and negotiations with the French messenger, with the unseen Governor of Harfleur and even with Catherine, Harrington has a panther-like vocal style, a slow, directed speech pattern that is fluently conversational with the verse while finding all of the imagery and beauty in the text. He delivers demands initially as pleasant and reasoned requests before becoming short-tempered, building to a firmer, formidable insistence in even love.
As a character, Henry appears only in moments across the first three Acts and Harrington is a commanding presence both in the battle scenes where he delivers all the famous speeches with just the right degree of rousing purpose and in political discussions where he seems quite at ease with his public decision-making authority. Yet, Harrington gives his Henry greater depth, the odd look that suggests he is a man struggling with the precepts of duty and responsibility, deeply concerned about his religious and social obligations and wanting to be seen to do the right thing even as he must subdue flickers of personal pain. Delivering that one truly introspective speech, Harrington is extremely good, holding the room entirely alone for the first time and showing his Henry as a man evolving, almost building a carapace around himself as the story unfolds, so while he may feel as keenly as an ordinary citizen, the experience of war and the needs of ceremony harden him forever.
The small supporting cast is very fine playing multiple bilingual gender-blind roles with distinction and providing the soundtrack. Akuwudike is a grand French King eventually humbled by defeat while Oliver Huband is excellent as his entirely objectionable and swaggering Dauphin. Anoushka Lucas gives Catherine more purpose and depth than often seen, while Danny Kirran as Pistol, Melissa Johns as Mistress Quickly, Claire-Louise Cauldwell as Bardolph and Steven Meo as Fluellen make the comedy characters far more integral to the singular direction of the story and less distracting than they can be.
More than a collection of electrifying speeches about Englishness (despite its Irish and Welsh characters in the army), this production really digs deep into Shakespeare’s beautiful verses to link the motivation for and experience of conflict to a very meaningful character study of a monarch we never quite read. A story of leadership and transformation, Henry V is the greatest of war plays and Max Webster’s production really does it justice.
Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse until 9 April with tickets from £10. The play will be broadcast via NT Live on 21 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog