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‘Henry V’ at Donmar review: Kit Harington stars in this timely production

Henry V starring Kit Harington is playing at the Donmar Warehouse through 9 April.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

“Once more into the breach, dear friends,” Prince Hal exclaims during the iconic monologue in Shakespeare’s history-come-tragedy about the petulant England royal’s quest for domination. But as the strapping and commanding Kit Harington hovers above the stage at the Donmar Warehouse in modern army fatigues preparing his troops for battle, that aforementioned “breach” feels all too close to home in Max Webster’s eerily relevant production.

The play opens with a single chorus member, played ably by Millicent Wong, who outlines the limitations of the theatrical space in portraying a grand story of war. However, every aspect of this production belies that opening caveat. The company worked with former Royal Marines Commando Tom Leigh to capture the essence of war and battle, and the result is chilling.

From Lee Curran’s pulsating lighting to Carolyn Downing’s reverberating sound to Fly Davis’s modern and sleek design, all the details add up to a war that could be – and is – happening in our very backyard. Benoit Swan Pouffer’s dance-like military movement and Andrej Goulding’s videos and projections, many of which recall hostage tapings, add to the triggering effect. 

Adding to the realistic quality of the production, all of the scenes amongst the French characters are performed in French, with subtitles projected above the stage. By introducing the native language of the occupied country, the conflict feels more personal and real. Andrew T. Mackay’s music, performed beautifully by a quartet (Adam Maxey, Marienella Phillips, Joanna Songi, and Seumas Begg) builds the stirring atmosphere. 

Harington is charismatic as the title character, making this distressed character and unsympathetic king likable. (However, be warned, the first thing he does on stage is blow chunks.) Harington takes “Harry” from his boyish partying days into his power-hungry battle cries seamlessly, and there are few actors who can deliver a Shakespearean line as well as he. His St. Crispin’s Day speech is astounding. 

He’s supported by a talented and flexible ensemble of actors, all of whom play multiple roles throughout the proceedings. Anoushka Lucas is stoic as Katherine, the French princess Henry forces into marriage; Jude Akuwudike excels as the diplomatic King of France; and Kate Duchêne is excellent as both Exeter and Constable of France. Danny Kirrane, Melissa Johns, Oliver Huband, and David Judge stand out in various roles. The cast is uniformly fantastic. 

While the company is firing on all cylinders, if you will, the production is not easy to watch. There are scenes of torture, epic battles, and political negotiations, and with the state of the world and current events at the moment, it can be extremely difficult to experience. 

However, art is a reflection of the world and can also help us heal. Although nothing about this play feels healing – the foreboding ending about the forthcoming occupation of England as disturbing as it’s ever been – sometimes experiencing a great work of art about a time in the not too distant past can remind us all of our humanity. And in the process, you get to experience some pretty incredible actors performing Shakespeare. Once more into the breach. 

Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse to 9 April.

Photo credit: Kit Harington and the Henry V cast (Photo by Helen Murray)

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