In Nicholas Hytner’s production of Henry V, the staging is decidedly modern and makes obvious parallels with recent dramatic events. It captures many of the ambiguities that the public feel about the recent war in Iraq and the ambivalence that now surrounds Prime Minister Blair in the minds and hearts of the British electorate.
The opening scene takes place around a large boardroom table -which is laid out with its requisite bottles of mineral water - where the Archbishop of Canterbury (William Gaunt) distributes a fat dossier setting out the dubious legal case for invading France. This could easily be Blair’s Cabinet Office discussing its latest dossier on Iraq.
The traditional chorus is replaced by a spin-doctor (Penny Downie) who idolises King Harry and seeks to promote his seemingly flawless public image. The idiocies of her spin is seen when she says of Nym “Now all the youth of England are on fire”, as Nym sits listlessly in a pub, flicking between TV channels and choosing snooker over the King’s war address to the nation. In the battle zone we have embedded reporters, who televise the king’s speeches but obsequiously fail to report his more blood-curdling threats. The King skilfully uses the media as a propaganda tool to rally the British nation and to de-moralise the French.
Adrian Lester gives a mixed performance as Harry, he sounds cold and menacing as he vents his fury upon the French ambassador after the contemptuous gift of tennis balls, but fails to be equally passionate and uplifting when he rallies his troops on St Crispin’s Day or gruesomely terrifying when he threatens the town of Harfleur. However, his King Harry is charismatic and forceful, and it becomes clear that his self-righteous indignation as God’s agent also makes him a cruel despot as he casually executes his former friend Bardolph by shooting him in the head for stealing from a church, or orders the execution of French prisoners.
The final scene continues the anti-hero interpretation that Hytner brings to the play. Harry fails to successfully woo the French Princess Katherine (Felicite Du Jeu), and she is unwillingly forced into marriage in order to save France yet more bloodshed. King Charles (Ian Hogg) looks dejected and though he speaks words of reverence and reconciliation it is clear that it is the bitter garland of defeat, which compels them.
Tim Hatley’s stage design, like the direction, brings the action into the present day; in this it succeeds too well. We are treated to jeeps on stage, machine guns, the sounds of battle, soldiers in modern uniform performing military manoeuvres; the staging gives the play epic proportions but leaves little to the imagination. When the chorus instructs the audience “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth. For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” It all sounds extraneous when the sound of machine fire is so loud that some in the audience cover their ears.
This dramatic updating of Henry V makes Shakespeare relevant to the modern day audience. The issues of power, self-righteousness, and political duplicitously abound in Hytner’s powerful anti-heroic interpretation of Henry V. If I found myself unable to fully participate in the ovation, which the play received, it is because of the feelings of discomfit it raised in me about the present political situation? A definitive post-Iraq interpretation of Henry V!
Could a darker, grimmer version of Henry V be mounted, or one more expertly produced? The great cavern of the Olivier stage has been cleared and painted entirely black, allowing our wooden O to become not just the vasty fields of France but an arena on which no fewer than three army landrovers freely roll. Occasionally a huge screen drops for broadcasts from the front, or for propaganda from the warrior king, or even, in an interpolated scene, recollections of Falstaff from happier days in a London pub. The stage, then, becomes a dismal and empty space for the battle scenes, or frontally screened off for indoor scenes. The characters are dwarfed, whether indoors or out, for the action often seems to surround and overwhelm them. This is not, then, an intimate production, but instead an epic staging of national affairs. It will put us most in mind of the recent invasion of Iraq. Even the furniture of the French evokes the ghastly furnishings of one of Saddam’s palaces, and the soldiers’ uniforms and arms will recall recent closely watched international events. Television itself becomes a small player in the drama, for the repeated and effective screen backdrops suggest the characters themselves cannot escape from public dimensions of the action.
Dominating that action is Adrian Lester in the title role. Whether in the business suit of the modern political leader or the army fatigues of the warrior in France, he strides the stage like a colossus, with tremendous charisma. His stirring voice, his perfect diction, his gait and every gesture bespeak a self-confidence not just of the political leader he plays but also the master actor he has so rapidly become. In fact, Lester’s self-assurance almost threatens to undermine the anti-war satire that is so clearly the director’s aim. We cannot help but be drawn to this hardhearted adamant. However hypocritical his speeches, even in his famous soliloquy before Agincourt as he complains that his head lies heavy with the crown, Lester commands admiration for the sheer bravura of his performance. From his first appearance, when he is insulted by the Dauphin’s tennis balls and gradually rises in a vengeful burn, to his later pitiless execution of his old mate Bardolph, Lester portrays a character in whom it is impossible to divide the public from the private. His furies, his bonhomie with his soldiers, his courtship: nothing is undertaken without a calculating motive. This is a leader of completely political dimensions, even when he seems at his most personal. Never is this truer than in the final wooing scene, where his goal is clearly to conquer and possess the French princess Catherine as forcefully as he has her country. His joking with his men, his rousing St Crispian’s Day speech, his negotiations with the French: it’s all of a piece, and that piece is coldly shrewd. The action emanates from the king’s sense of civic necessity, so that the other characters, however they resist, become caught up in the political and military vortex whose source is Lester’s astute portrayal of the monarch.
Nicholas Hytner has directed with a clear vision of what he’s about. He never allows us to forget that the characters are engaged in a heartless, warlike encounter. The French, for their part, seem dithering, silly, and doomed, but mostly because of the ruthlessness of the English adversary. The Dauphin, Henry’s French counterpart, becomes a parody of a leader, whom Adam Levy plays with flair and grace. We want to laugh at his antics, but the interpretation borders on ridicule of the French, a paradoxical approach in the light of our own international events. The lesser figures seem confounded both on the battlefield and in the drawing room, unable to resist opposing forces with humour, desperate mendacity, or petty shows of bravado. Llewellyn, Gower, Pistol, even the Hostess: the racial and ethnic diversity of this fine cast underscores how sweeping is the net of war. Powerlessness becomes the keynote of this play about power. A consequence of this scope is that it is often difficult to pay full attention to the array of vivid characters. In the English figures, though, Hytner has invested considerable dignity. By casting black actors as Pistol (Jude Akuwudike) and the Hostess (Cecilia Noble), Hytner has called attention to the Britain of today. We may as well be in East London during the Iraqi invasion as in Cheapside in 1600, so forcefully has Hytner put us in mind of contemporary multi-cultural life. Lester’s Henry, too, seems to reflect the demography of the twenty-first century, although in that regard only is the lead actor’s race part of the production’s interest. What we have in this Henry V, then, is a play about contemporary Britain. Does this not widen the play's reach?
Production photo Ivan Kyncl
Notices from the popular press....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This is a rare Henry V, convincingly revalued and redefined." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This is absolutely a Henry V for our age." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Adrian Lester, recently a fine Hamlet and now a vivid, vital Henry." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "For dramatic power, contemporary resonance and sheer wit, this Henry V is bang on target." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Adrian Lester's powerful, charismatic Henry is evidently overcompensating for his reckless youth in a determined and sustained display of humourless righteousness."
External links to full reviews from newspapers