Henry V, Noël Coward Theatre, ends 29 March 2014
With Jude Law taking the lead role in Michael Grandage’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the audience were expecting to witness a very strong performance.
Law manages to delicately balance his portrayal of Henry, initially bearing the charisma and confidence of a young king who rejects any challenges from his adversary, the French Dauphin. However, his swagger all too quickly turns to turmoil as Henry V has to prove himself as an effective ruler of his country – something that the play constantly questions. Leading his men to battle in Agincourt, France, Law convincingly captures the conflicted King as he contemplates his lonely powerfulness, ruthlessly condemns some of his men to death, and tries to rouse the doubtful spirits of his army with the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech: “We few, we happy few…”.
The fragility of Henry is tempered with moments of comedy and buoyancy – a pleasant surprise in this Shakespearian history play. Following on from brooding over his army, Law’s king must navigate his way around what should be an amorous and charming pursuit of the French Princess Katharine, played by Jessie Buckley. The awkward and bashful King coaxed out many a laugh from the audience, as did the French Princess’ English lesson, which resulted in some slips of the tongue.
Ashley Shangazha was also a stand-out, who took on the combined role of the Chorus and Boy. Decked out in contemporary clothes, such as a Union Jack t-shirt, the play raised the matter of linking the medieval period and our contemporary culture and warfare. This is something that Grandage could have played on more, to avoid contradiction as the remainder of play was performed in line with its traditional arrangement.
Indeed, a very simplistic stage – a “wooden O”, as it is called in the prologue – was consistent with the play’s 15th century setting. Nevertheless, lighting designer Neil Austin and set designer Christopher Oram made use of the full scope of the stage’s space with doorways, additional depth, and trapdoors. The aged timber of the high curved walls proved to be the perfect canvas for light, which played a significant role in suggesting the monumental combat taking place just offstage.
Despite Henry’s David-and-Goliath-scale victory against the French, the King emerges as a flawed hero in Michael Grandage’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. The audience is truly absorbed by this lucid and fluent production which fragilely balances the darker moments of war with often comedic courtly scenes.
Michael Grandage’s directorial run at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s Covent Garden was a 15-month season, which finished with Henry V, with over 100,000 tickets priced at just £10. The five plays boasted of names such as Judi Dench and Daniel Radcliffe, as well as Jude Law.
Lauren Swift, Copy Editor
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