Sunday, October 2

Henry V – Donmar Warehouse

Shakespeare’s wartime history is transported to the modern day in Max Webster’s newest production for the Donmar Warehouse, this time screen through National Theatre Live.

For those unfamiliar with the plot: after an insult from the French Dauphin, King Henry V of England invades France to claim the throne he believes should be his. Henry stops an assassination plot, rouses troops with powerful rhetoric, and wins battles when the odds are stacked against England. In the end, he marries the Princess of France, linking the two nations. Shakespeare’s original production was set around 1599 and contained all the ingredients to make it a smash hit at the royal court. This production poignantly communicates the ease with which Shakespeare can seemingly be transplanted to perhaps any time period, and the delicacy of peace.

As this showing was a recording, broadcast after the original run has ended, there are obviously other reviews of Henry V already gracing pages. In its original viewing format, it garnered star ratings of as high as 4 stars to as low as two. While some headlines proclaimed its greatness, other condemned it as ‘overproduced’.

It is true that certainly no holds were barred, and no expense was spared to bring this production to life. From the second scene one opens, Kit Harrington, of Game of Thrones fame, comes stumbling through a nightclub, upchucking centre stage just before a bawdy chorus of Sweet Caroline, while his friends swirl in a cocktail of cocaine and strobe lighting. It was big, bright and loud coming through the cinema screen; it could have only been more so in the intimate Donmar Warehouse.

However, as the play progresses, I will argue that the translation from stage to screen – something that is well acknowledged as difficult to accomplish well – is in fact helped by the ferocity of the production. Light and sound were seamlessly choreographed, bringing vigour and power, especially in the case of the choral singers that made up some of the company, a magnificent execution.

Something to note is that this was a gender-balanced production. It is interesting and stirring to see strong female actors bring nuance to the powerful roles that have traditionally always been male in this play. All sexes were quite equally demonstrative of the brutalising effects of war, with violence and heroism very much intertwined throughout. This is set up neatly at the start, when a quote from the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin is displayed on screen: “There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.”

Kit Harrington transforms over the course of the tale from tentative, ambivalent, inexperienced royal to battle-scarred, hardened politician. He beautifully delivers many inspiring speeches, unfurling “once more into the breach, dear friends” from a gantry, from swirling smoke and a halo of divine light from above and behind – the famed St Crispin’s Day speech before Agincourt is a rousing cry to war delivered with charismatic force.

However, there are odd moments: a perhaps miss-cast Millicent Wong attempts to transport us from scene to scene, but was too overpowered by her surroundings, while the supposed comic scenes in Act 2 were very dark, which didn’t necessarily do them justice.

All in all, fans of this classic tale must be prepared for an assault on the eyes and ears; it may not be to the taste of all, but it is viscerally memorable and confident.

Reviewer: Natalie Romero

Reviewed: 22nd April 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★