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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Henry V
by Lizzie Loveridge

May I with right and conscience make this claim?
-- Henry V
Henry V
Adrian Lester as Henry V
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Another first - Nicholas Hytner's first direction in his new post in charge of the National Theatre. It is remarkably the first time Henry V has been staged by the National Theatre in forty years. It is the first of an experiment to attract to the National Theatre a new audience of theatregoers to swell the ranks of the traditional audience. Under the Travelex sponsored scheme, two thirds of the seats are available at £10 each.

What Hytner has done first and foremost is to bring relevance to his modern dress production of Henry V. Setting the Anglo-French war of the 1400s in the current context, Hytner cannot possibly have known when planning Henry V that while rehearsing, Britain and the United States would be at war in Iraq. That is the first thing you notice, cameramen embedded with Henry's troops bringing immediate video coverage of the war to the English and the French at home.

We were told that this was to be an anti-war interpretation of Henry V, maybe even one where Henry would be portrayed as a war criminal, murderous and blood thirsty. Hytner seems not to go as far as that. But by casting a fine actress, Penny Downie as the Chorus and telling her to gush the lines of the Prologue as if she were one of those sycophantic, overly deferential narrators of television tribute fests to Hollywood actors, the effect is irony laid on with a halberd. There will be no sitting back in the £10 seats to enjoy the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare's Prologue "Oh for a Muse of Fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention". Hytner forces you to question and confront any representation of war as patriotic, gung-ho populism.

Whilst Hytner makes it clear that the grounds for Henry's claim to the French throne are tenuous with William Gaunt's Archbishop of Canterbury delving in the annals for precedent, he ridicules the enemy, the foolish, fashion conscious French court with its rococo gold leaf chairs and the excess of flower arrangements. The British government are restrained men in grey suits sat at a plain table, the only designer touch, the bottles of mineral water. Contrasting with Adrian Lester's brilliant delivery of Henry's battle speeches, the French King, (Ian Hogg) is a tedious and uninspiring orator who doesn't believe his own words. The French are vain and self-absorbed. Adam Levy's Dauphin practises tai chi moves and when says his horse is his mistress we are tempted to take him literally. The French soldiers wear their best uniforms, "mess kit", the British "combat fatigues" for getting down to battle.

At the Siege of Harfleur, the English troops seem exhausted, many of them young and out of their depth, as they sit or lie on the ground. Henry's "Once more into the breach" speech rouses their spirits, brings them to their feet and we can see their resolve to fight returning. They rise like wilted plants revive after a rain storm. Adrian Lester's king carries his own pack, he is a man of the people. As a boy he learnt about the society of the taverns of Cheapside but personally executes an old acquaintance Bardolph (David Kennedy) for stealing from a church. Should he spare on old friend? No, that would be an indulgence, favouritism. There is a witty play when Harry in disguise describing himself to Pistol (Jude Akuwudike) as Harry Le Roi, earns the riposte "Leroy?" His speech about the responsibilities of kings has the soldiers edging away escaping the reflective stranger - his touch is not that common.. In contrast the St Crispian's Day speech is delivered from a jeep but listened to attentively. Adrian Lester's Henry is visibly moved after the French murder of the boys left at the camp. The Dauphin (Adam Levy) personally executes the pages in a bloodthirsty moment that reminds us war is about bloodshed. In wooing the French princess, Catherine (Felicité du Jeu), Lester as Henry has a disarming inexpertise compared to the ease with which he finds inspiring military speeches. I liked too Peter Blythe's "Uncle Exeter" a wise and sagacious presence.

Many are the echoes of the Iraqi war: captured French soldiers sitting in a line hands on their heads; the news reels, the headlines at the bottom of the screen recording the French and English dead like a football score. Even Falstaff's (Desmond Barrit) death features home video remembrances of Prince Hal and the old rascal played on the big screen in the local tavern.

I was charmed by Adrian Lester's modest and intelligent Henry. In the final scene the screens open for the cast to move back, further and further away, as if into the pages of the history that they have become. We are told that King Henry V dies at 34, a few weeks before he would have become King of France on the death of the French king, leaving his infant son Henry VI to rule. The ruling combination of Hytner and Lester make this inaugural production not just topical but memorably good.

For links to Shakespeare plays generally, and Henry V specifically, see CurtainUp's Shakespeare page

Henry V
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Adrian Lester, Peter Blythe, William Gaunt, Ian Hogg, Penny Downie
With: Tom McKay, Tim Treloar, Peter Blythe, Robert Horwell, Faz Singhateh, Tony Devlin, David Weston, Nick Sampson, Jude Akuwudike, Mark Springer, David Kennedy, Russell Tovey, Cecilia Noble, Desmond Barrit, Rupert Wickham, Robert Blythe, Rohan Siva, Adam Levy, Felicité du Jeu, Marian McLoughlin, Iain Mitchell, John Normington, Jamie Harding, Helen Anderson-Lee
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Simon Webb
Running time: Three hours with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 20th August 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th May 2003 performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo)

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