Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Holly Race Roughan
A coronation looming, tensions abroad, unrest at home. Power-hungry, ego-driven men ruining things for everyone around them. Ringing any bells?
Holly Race Roughan’s Henry V shows how eerily relevant the writing of a sixteenth-century playwright on a fifteenth-century king can be to a twenty-first-century audience.
Candle-like strip lights illuminate a minimal stage. The flickering of these lights, the cast’s well-tailored suits and the ear-ringing sound effects immerse the audience into this psychological modern adaptation.
The show begins with a scene from Shakespeare’s earlier play, Henry IV, where Henry V’s father taunts him about the kind of king he will make. From here, an insecure, frenetic Henry grows increasingly desperate to prove himself as a leader, no matter the human cost.
Oliver Johnstone gives a chilling performance, switching seamlessly from taunting and euphoric to twitchy and paranoid. The audience are just another of his royal subjects, at the whim of his mood swings.
With genius design from Moi Tran, a backdrop of luscious green draped fabric is peeled back to reveal rusting, blackened mirrors. Backstage is left fully exposed; characters sit on storage boxes waiting for their cue.
Henry’s dark, unstable side is similarly exposed as the play barrels forward. The famous “Once more unto the breach” speech is not a rallying cry Henry delivers to his troops, but a nervous pep-talk he mutters as he scans his reflection, searching for approval.
Many well-known adaptations of the famous history play use Henry’s stirring speeches to invoke national pride; we have come to know Henry as a hero who led English armies victoriously into battle.
Race Roughan flicks a switch, bringing all the most chilling and grotesque elements of the play, and the king, into focus.
This is a Henry who brutally smothers both enemies and allies at the slightest provocation. His language is so foul, his threats so grotesque, the sign language interpreter on stage is hesitant to repeat them. Henry has to bully her into miming heads being poked onto sticks.
In exposing Henry’s toxicity, Race Roughan throws into question the propagandistic view of the country and the monarchy as an international power.
Rousing renditions of God Save the King become steadily more unsure and sombre as soldiers question the war’s purpose. Raucous singing in a pub is gut-wrenchingly juxtaposed with Bardolph’s macabre hanging.
A stand-out is a sardonic new scene that perfectly sums up Race Roughan’s approach to this play – Henry’s bartered-for new wife Catherine taking her English citizenship test.
This gripping adaptation encourages us to reflect on what it means to be English. Just a few months after ‘the queue’ of mourners formed for Queen Elizabeth II, and just a few months before King Charles III’s coronation, in the time of the ‘Hostile Environment’, it couldn’t be more relevant.
Runs until 25th February 2023, before continuing on tour.
The worst production of Henry V I have seen. It was completely inadequate to its subject. It seems to have been conceived as a riposte to the infamous Olivier version. But propaganda is still propaganda whatever the message. The invented final act was plain insulting to the intelligence of the audience. The reaction at Leeds Playhouse – apart from a handful.of laughs – spoke volumes by its lukewarm applause at the production’s end. Still even a propagandistic version of Shakespeare cannot obliterate the beauty of the verse and the nobility of spirit that is in this play.
I have seen several versions of this play. I regret it did not show the transformational role of , ‘a little touch of Harry in the night ‘ but it would have been inappropriate here: Henry is an egotistical revenge villain keen to make the Dauphin pay for his tennis ball jibe. We are left in no doubt about the horrors of war from the threat to the Governor of Harfleur to Bardolph’s hanging to Catherine’s terror at realising she is a trophy of war and has to learn an alien language very quickly.
Could have done without the over-long first scene, more nuance in line delivery and pacing at times but I couldn’t sleep afterwards. Live theatre at its best.