Henry V – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Holly Race Roughan

For the second time this year Shakespeare’s most jingoistic play has been given a closer reading that aligns with contemporary ambiguity about nationhood and the self-glorification of the English. But Henry V has always been a play that thought carefully about the price of war and the nature of power with its soulful contemplations of monarchy, friendship and command. Like its fellow at the Donmar Warehouse in February, Holly Race Roughan’s new production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, has found a far darker resonance, one that convincingly turns its hero into a maniacal despot.

Soon after ascending the English throne and convinced of his claim to another crown, the youthful King Henry V decides to channel his vibrant energies into a war with France. Taking a meagre army across the Channel, the ‘overlusty French’ are certain they will crush the invader but as Henry’s soldiers lay siege to various towns, the monarch grows in confidence, ready to face a decisive battle at Agincourt.

There is nothing better in the theatre than to see an overfamiliar play being turned on its head in ways that accord entirely with the text, giving the audience the opportunity to see it in a different light. Race Roughan has done just that with this Henry V, a co-production between Shakespeare’s Globe, Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate, Northampton where it will subsequently tour. And it is one usually overlooked line upon which this exciting interpretation has been built ‘I love the lovely bully’ – for this is an intense, angry and emotional Henry, as prone to weeping as screaming in someone’s face, more than mercurial; he’s downright dangerous.

There is an impressive psychological consistency in this reading of Henry that works throughout the text, recasting some of the famous speeches and giving them some really intriguing new forms. The famous Harfleur speech is subverted, becoming a partial soliloquy in which Henry is trying to goad himself into action while later the usually motivational Saint Crispin’s Day address becomes instead a furious rage against the cowardly man wishing for more soldiers. And it all works. Henry is on the very edge of sanity all the time, incredibly unstable and incredibly threatening without changing a word that Shakespeare wrote.

Race Roughan has mixed success with the staging decisions and while the simplicity of the Jamie Lloyd-esque pared-back approach extends the meta-narrative that Shakespeare builds into the Chorus, frequently calling on the audience’s imagination, Moi Tran’s pea green set design was a better idea than it is in practice. The programme essay notes reference climate, occupation and nature but at scale it is unpleasantly soup coloured, relived only by the burnished mirror wall when the action moves to France.

Race Roughan has also made some drastic cuts to the text – this is a rare Globe show that finishes before 10pm – but it sacrifices some glorious imagery and the atmosphere of anticipation that has made Henry V the model for every war poem and play ever written. The rejection of Henry’s former friends also makes little sense now unless you already know the play, while a terrible addendum scene set in a modern immigration office is a 10 second joke that lasts for several minutes and adds nothing extra to the production.

Oliver Johnstone has been waiting for some time for leading roles to be brilliant in and in the last year he has had two. After an excellent Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his Henry V is an extraordinary thing: powerful, frightening and filled with complex layers, dealing as decisively with the Mayor of Harfleur as he does with Princess Katherine. Johnstone hovers on the edge all the time and the audience never knows which way his character will go, borrowing equally from the grief-stricken introversion of Hamlet as well as the tyrannous certainty of Macbeth, both of which could easily be in the actor’s future. It is a tremendous and enthralling performance that is full of shocks, not least that for all his willingness to kill a man with his bare hands, Johnstone’s Henry is convinced he is a fun guy, as long as he’s not the butt of the joke.

There’s some good support among the rest of the cast in multiple roles including Geoffrey Lamb’s King of France and Joshua Griffin as Fluellen but its Johnstone’s performance and this refreshing perspective on the play that will chill your blood on the way home. And while we have no Chorus to tell us what happens to Henry after the play ends, you only hope for England (and Katherine’s) sake that his reign does not last long. This is the Globe’s best play in a long time and exactly the kind of inspiring work they should have been doing all along.

Runs until 4 February 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Downright dangerous

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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