Henry V, Noel Coward Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Henry V, Noel Coward Theatre
Jude Law reigns supreme, ending Michael Grandage's star-studded season
It has been a hard slog, but he's emerging victorious in the end. Essentially, Shakespeare's Henry V tracks a military campaign. In Act One, the eponymous king declares war on France. By Act Five, against the odds, he has won and is sealing an entente cordiale with a kiss – wooing the French princess, Katharine. At the start of Michael Grandage's eagerly awaited West End production, the Chorus (Ashley Zhangazha) darts to the apron stage to address the audience with: "Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention!"
He's a youth in jeans and a T-shirt printed with a black-splattered Union Jack, and there's no oratorical grandiosity in his style of delivery. It’s rapid-fire, animated, lucid. That is also true of this company's verse-speaking as a whole, generating a sense of freshness that might otherwise have been undermined by the medieval outfits worn by everyone except Zhangazha.
Jude Law notably eschews grandstanding as Henry V. His "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" is no big set speech, but a rallying cry in medias res as he and his men catch their breath between sallies, surging on and off stage. So too, his "band of brothers" call to arms on St Crispin's Day arises, persuasively, from a battlefield chat with close-knit mates, as he turns to them individually, clasping their shoulders.
You sense this soldier-king's backstory in Law’s fine performance: Henry's past as the young Prince Hal who hung out in the rough pubs of Eastcheap and whose father was frosty. Though he has reformed and is maturing fast, Law’s wide-shouldered torso, in a leather doublet, suggests a trace of brawny yobbishness. Itching to start a fight across the Channel, he twitches even whilst listening astutely to his advisors. His rage, ignited by a cousin-turned-traitor, is also strikingly shot through with near-tearful distress. It’s as if – even though his own friendship can't be depended on – he craves reliable allies.
Mainly, the supporting cast do not come into such individualised, sharp focus. The most outstanding are Ron Cook, whose Pistol is a comical ragged dandy, hightailing it whenever the going gets tough; Matt Ryan as the furiously nationalistic Welshman, Fluellen; and Jessie Buckley who’s a charming Katharine (pictured below with Law).
At points, I hungered for more startlingly innovative directorial concepts. Christopher Oram’s designs are high calibre and handsome: a wooden fortress towering like a weathered cliff; aristocrats in wine-red velvet cloaks; and hordes wielding halberds. One may, however, begin to weary of the mist that permanently hangs in the air and the angled shafts of gold and silvery light (frequent trademarks of Grandage’s costume dramas). I started to feel this was the Middle Ages with a Merchant Ivory gloss, especially with mood-enhancing music piped in, like the soundtrack for a film.
On the other hand, the T-shirted Zhangazha becomes embedded in the fray, indicating that Shakespeare’s two-edged portrayal of war remains relevant to our era. That point is brought home when Henry mingles, incognito, with discontented troops who question if he’s waging a just war. This production is the last in Michael Grandage’s star-studded residency. It may have been hit and miss en route, but he ends pretty triumphantly, with Law on his side.
- Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 February
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