Henry V: Theatre review - 'Jude Law's canny Harry crowns an enlightened season of plays'

First night: Noël Coward Theatre, London

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 03 December 2013 22:57
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Actors normally play Henry V before they broach Hamlet. But Jude Law has inverted that progression. He portrayed Shakespeare’s tragic hero for Michael Grandage four years ago and now he reunites with the director to give us “a little touch of Harry in the night” in this final instalment in Grandage’s pioneering West End season of five star-led productions which have played to an average of 92 per cent capacity, with more than a quarter of the tickets sold for £10.

You could argue that Law has left it not a moment too soon to tackle the part. With his receding hairline and the bags under the eyes, he’s looking a bit lived-in for the warrior monarch whose youthfulness is mocked by the Dauphin of France. But in his leather jerkin and distractingly tight trousers, he cuts a commanding figure and 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.

Henry V is a deeply equivocal work, managing to be both a blast of a patriotism and a clear-eyed sceptical look at the dubious legal justification for the invasion of the France and at the horrors of warfare. It’s a key to the success of Law’s Henry that whenever he is most emphatic, he sounds as if he trying to convince himself too. Law lets you see that the king’s rather creepy tricks and jokes are cannily stage-managed public relations exercises. Even the way he woos Jessie Buckley’s enchanting French princess has the air of a practised charmer scoring points for feigned awkwardness. Law brings a special intensity to the “ceremony” speech in which Henry bewails the insomniac human cost of kingship.

Simply staged on Christopher Oram’s flexible stockade set and using a slimmed-down text, the production boasts the Grandage hallmark of fluent, uncluttered clarity. It’s performed in period costume, except for Ashley Zhangazha’s open-faced, tremendously engaging Chorus who wears a Union Jack T-shirt and is our modern link with the action. Having this framing character double as the Boy who goes off to fight in France highlights how often what the Chorus officially contends is contradicted by what we then see and it allows for a truly piercing twist in the second half.

Grandage elicits beautifully unforced comic performances from Ron Cook, whose pint-sized Pistol has a smack of the disreputable actor laddie, and from Matt Ryan, who captures the deliciously comic combination of quaint pedantry and self-conscious dignity in this professional Welshman Fluellen. Occasionally, the even-handedness makes it all feel a bit middle-of-the-road.

Nicholas Hytner’s searing Iraq War version may be an unfair comparison because it was responding to events in 1993. Some of that sense of urgency, though, would not go amiss here. But if this Henry V does not end the season in a blaze of glory, it’s a conclusive vindication of an enlightened project.

Until 15 February; 0844 482 5141

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