Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2
Oh, how I love Henry V… Especially when he is played with as much charisma and good looks as Jude Law is lucky enough to possess 😉
The finale of the Michael Grandage Company’s series of five plays at the Noel Coward Theatre brought the star-studded season to an end with a hearty “hurrah!”, a comradely “band of brothers”, a dose of feel-good, funny romancing and a tinge of darkness at the last minute to create a bittersweet culmination of one of Shakespeare’s best plays (in my opinion).
Having studied the character of Henry in depth in my EPQ (ah, how long ago that seems!), I was interested to see Law portray Harry as much more brutal than in previous versions. Whereas other Henrys have punished the three traitors with at least some sort of sorrow, this King both showed no mercy and no wish to be merciful. The controversial speech at Harfleur was similarly aggressive and the order to “kill all the prisoners” was delivered with cold callousness. Whilst some critics argue these ruthless actions are simply what is required to be a good King and a strong leader, and that Henry has no intention of following through on his threats, this production made one feel that he was both perfectly capable and reasonably willing to bring them into action.
However, that’s not to say that Law’s King Henry was unlikeable; the great, inspiring speeches were still exciting (“The game’s afoot! Cry God for Harry, England and St George!” – how could that not stir you out of your seats?!); I would say this Henry was more devoutly religious than I had seen him before; and he was still just as charismatic and appealing as ever (especially in that final wooing scene which, as I have said many a time before, is my absolute favourite romance scene in any book, poem or play. Ever. If anyone ever wants to court me – great word – please take note.) He’s just attractive in a rougher sort of way 😉
Moving away from the protagonist, and onto the other characters…
The Chorus, played by this year’s Ian Charleson award winner Ashley Zhangazha, began the play by entering the seemingly bleak setting in modern dress, a UK flag emblazoned on his T-Shirt, to utter the famous lines, imploring the audience to furnish the stage with their imagination. To be totally honest, this was necessary at times; there seemed an incredible scarcity of French warriors during the great Battle of Agincourt, especially considering how they’re supposed to outnumber the English by at least five to one. At most, there were four of them. Yeah. Quite a lot of imagination needed there…
Anyway, in an interesting directorial decision, the Chorus and the Boy were doubled up (played by the same actor, wearing the same costume, etc.) Zhangazha played both extremely well, and it was interesting at times to see how in awe he was of all the battles. This did however mean that we lost some of the Chorus’ undercutting of all of Henry’s rousing inspiration. Perhaps Grandage felt that with a harsher Henry, this wasn’t so necessary in this particular production, but I would like in the future to see a more sarcastic, more knowing Chorus.
Moving onto one of my most favouritest characters in Shakespeare’s works, Fluellen (played excellently by Matt Ryan), the earnest and comedic, affectionately portrayed Welsh Captain of Henry’s army. What I always like about Fluellen is how well-rounded he is, despite being a deliberately over-the-top national stereotype. It was clear in this production what a strong and powerful soldier he is, quite aside from his great scenes with Bardolph and the leek – which are always hilarious and a welcome break from the intensity of war in the rest of the play.
One moment I thought could have been exploited a little more was the Archbishop’s speech justifying Henry’s invasion of France at the beginning. Having just watched an episode of a brilliant 1980s TV series by the RSC, ‘Playing Shakespeare’, and seen an incredibly witty version of this often boring monologue by Tony Church, I had hoped to see a repeat performance of this. However, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to make an often dull moment funny, Grandage instead chose to cut a whole chunk out, leaving only the absolutely necessary and most tedious bits in there. I can see why he did it, but next time I’d love to see a more fun rendition!
Overall, this is a production well worth seeing, mainly for the star power of Jude Law in the main role, but also for a strong supporting cast. As I said, they could have done with more people on stage in general, but apart from that it was thoroughly entertaining and gripping. A great end to a great season.
‘Henry V’ by the Michael Grandage Company (Noel Coward Theatre): 4/5 stars