Shakespeare is our national playwright, who more than any has taken the pulse and history of the nation and translated it into the stuff of both vigorous drama and rigorous poetry. And there are few more searing, shattering examples of his art than his great history play Henry V that now brings director Michael Grandage's first residency at the Noel Coward Theatre at the helm of his own commercial outfit to a stirring and triumphant close.
Grandage's season, which has embraced new and old plays including two Shakespeares (the other that immediately preceded this one was A Midsummer Night's Dream), has played so far to audiences of 92% capacity, with over 200 tickets per show (or 100,000 seats across the season) available at just £10. So the season has, above all, been accessible to all.
And that, of course, is also the hallmark of Grandage's own work as a director, too. Previously when he was at the helm of the Donmar Warehouse, he brought intimacy, intensity and especially a vibrant clarity to such Shakespeares as King Lear (with Derek Jacobi), Othello (Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role and Ewan McGregor as Iago) and Richard II (Eddie Redmayne), and as part of a Donmar West End residency at Wyndham's also showed that the same principles could be applied on a larger stage with productions of Twelfth Night and Hamlet.
The latter starred Jude Law as the troubled Dane, and now he returns to work with Grandage in the title role of Henry V. Grandage may have an old-fashioned belief in star casting, but it is far from indiscriminate and each time produces genuinely compelling results. Law, who turns 41 at the end of December and now sports a noticeably receding hairline, is leaving his matinee idol years behind him, and is emerging as an even more interesting actor as a result. He can't suppress his natural charisma or swagger, of course – nor should he: both are qualities of the young monarch that rouse his troops to action. But he also projects the darker, more engulfing doubts that the character shares with Hamlet.
While other productions like Nicholas Hytner's at the National ten years ago that starred Adrian Lester in the title role, have made contemporary resonances explicit, Grandage and his designer Christopher Oram make it more timelessly classical, apart from turning Shakespeare's own framing device of the chorus (played by Ashley Zhangazha) into a modern outsider, sporting a tee-shirt with a Union Jack across it.
Grandage's production, played on a beautiful, abstract timber panelled set, is notably swift (it runs for just over two and a half hours) and utterly absorbing. It may be led from the front from Law, but it is also far from a one-man show, with terrific ensemble support across the board including such fine actors as Norman Bowman, Jessie Buckley, Ron Cook, Matt Ryan and James Laureson.
"You leave the theatre in no doubt that you have witnessed a production of rare distinction and dramatic depth."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"... Law here vividly blends the kind of natural charisma that can rouse tired troops with a brooding spiritual uneasiness that has its affinities with Hamlet."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"... this is a fast, well-staged account of a problematic play."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"He [Jude Law] glowers beautifully, even if he resembles a slimmed down Phil Collins."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The second half is better than the first, with moments of surprising campfire intimacy, but while it’s admirably lucid, there is a lack of real freshness."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard