It’s a long time since Laurence Olivier used his Second World War production of Henry V as a patriotic boost for the nation, even dedicating it “to the commandos and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In recent decades it has tended to be played either anti-war or, at the very least, questioning the motives of waging war.
Robert Hastie’s production here makes its purpose quite clear in the programme, saying: “It is testament to the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s work that our production is staged as we await the Chilcot report into why our country goes to war…” Ah, those directors and their quest to make Shakespeare “relevant”. Bless ’em. As if he wasn’t already.
In this modern-dress production, played ambitiously on an empty stage, the soldiers in khaki are immediately a reminder of Britain’s most recent military adventure. Indeed, the battle scenes, often choreographed to an intense drum beat and blinding lights, are particularly effective, as are their campfires among the trees surrounding the stage, and the execution by firing squad of Henry’s erstwhile crony Bardolph for a minor theft memorably chilling.
This production seeks to make a further point about contemporary playing of Shakespeare, that there can be no limits to cross-gender casting. Not just Michelle Terry’s Henry, or a first-class Chorus by Charlotte Cornwell. but officers, soldiers, a bishop and more are women, and Henry’s future bride the French Princess Katherine a man. To a large extent it works, as it undoubtedly can and should in plays and roles where sexual encounters are largely absent. Only in the wooing scene, despite an excellent performance by Ben Wiggins as Katherine, whose pain on being used as a pawn in peace negotiation we certainly feel, does it only just escape verging on the comic.
But Henry V must always be judged on its lead character, and the casting of the fine actress Michelle Terry left this viewer not wholly convinced. She starts as an intriguingly troubled and twitchy monarch, prone to flashes of temper and some memorably disconcerting gestures (she kisses the traitor Scroop fully on the lips as she sentences him to death). Equally intriguingly it is an androgynous performance, neither studiedly male nor female. But it’s a performance that is insufficiently imposing or charismatic. And it’s not always easy to work out what the character, or indeed the production, is really saying about war and its motivations.
In that regard, the production delivers less than it promised. Perhaps it will have a lot in common with the Chilcot report after all.
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