Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V was commissioned as propaganda and cheered a nation back into battle. But as Jude Law’s performance proves, this is a play about the underside of war, not so much warmongering itself, and it’s striking that, like all his best predecessors in the role, Law humanises Henry as a man of the people.
There’s one scary moment when he commands his men to kill all their prisoners (the line was cut by Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in their films); but this is a pragmatic reaction to maximise his limited resources, his happy few, in the campaign.
In fact, you could trace what Law does back to Richard Burton at the Old Vic in 1955. Kenneth Tynan lauded a cunning warrior, stocky and astute, unafraid of harshness or of curling the royal lip; he was true, watchful and ruthless.
Exactly the same is the case with Law, whose vitality and subtlety suggests an elaboration on his much angrier and monotonously sullen Hamlet four years ago. He delivers the difficult “Upon the King” soliloquy on the eve of Agincourt with real feeling, exemplary control and intellectual fervour.
Since Burton, notable Henrys at the Royal Shakespeare Company have included Ian Holm, Alan Howard, Branagh and Michael Sheen. The first two were part of history play cycles, so you could see how Prince Hal morphed into monarchy. Holm was mesmerising, chunky and matter-of-fact in the great Wars of the Roses cycle in 1964, while Howard, 10 years later, took more readily to majesty, with a sort of pained grandeur.
Law is light years away from that, far closer to Branagh’s 1984 Gulf War RSC reading, the template for his 1989 movie, as well as the elfin, bright-eyed musical leader of Michael Sheen at the RSC, in 1997.
Law is as modern in his way as Burton was 50 years ago, and his charming wooing of his French bride, Catherine, echoes what today’s Prince William, who’s served his time in the forces, may well have said to his own royal bride: “We are the makers of manners, Kate.”