sun 29/01/2023

Henry V, Shakespeare's Globe review - anatomy of a violent, murky world of leadership | reviews, news & interviews

Henry V, Shakespeare's Globe review - anatomy of a violent, murky world of leadership

Henry V, Shakespeare's Globe review - anatomy of a violent, murky world of leadership

The play is stripped down to expose sinister undercurrents of nationalism and honour-culture

Sullied honour: Oliver Johnstone (left) and Joshua GriffinJohan Persson

It begins in darkness. All that can be heard is the sound of a human struggling painfully for breath so that even before the lights go up we have the sense of a life coming to an end. It’s a stark contrast to the triumphalism of the play’s original opening “Oh for a Muse of fire”.

Here instead there’s guilt and confusion as Henry realises, in anguish, that far from ceremonially lifting the crown from a corpse, he’s taken it from his father’s head before he’s died.

In their final, bitter, conversation – taken from Henry IV part II – the old king delivers a warning about the grim realpolitik that enabled him to cling to power. “God knows, my son/By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways/I met this crown; and myself know well/How troublesome it sat upon my head.” This is not the gilded account of being a monarch embraced by Laurence Olivier in 1944 but an anatomy of a murky, violent world of leadership. In this intelligent, clear-eyed staging – co-produced by the Globe with Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate – the play is stripped down to expose its sinister undercurrents of nationalism and honour-culture.

Oliver Johnstone’s Henry V is initially a humane presence. While he’s not the jokey anarchist who we’ve seen hanging out with Falstaff in Henry IV parts I and II, he is open and emotive, sobbing with grief when his father eventually does die. An early turning point is when he discovers that his close friend Scroop is conspiring with the French – where in the original he hands him over for execution, here he strangles him barehanded in front of us. We see how the violence nauseates him without removing his conviction that it’s necessary; he delivers the famous speech “imitate the action of a tiger” as a soliloquy, clutching his knees to his chest before rising to challenge himself in the tarnished mirror behind him.

Holly Race Roughan’s slick, scabrous production adopts a deliberately simple layout. For the first half of the play the cast face each other from single rows of chairs on either side of the stage, announcing the scene number and their names as they get up to perform. Moi Tran’s minimalist set is initially a pale uniform green, but really comes into its own when the curtain rises up to reveal an atmospherically muted reflective backdrop. Climbing-holds across the surface enable cast members to scurry up and down the wall as they bicker and remonstrate with each other.

Britain of course has no shortage of issues with toxic nationalism, but one result of Cordelia Lynn’s deft edit of the script is that we hear echoes in Henry’s language of the more bloody nationalism being practised by Russia in Ukraine. In the famous siege of Harfleur he threatens that, “Your fathers [will be] taken by the silver beards,/And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,/Your naked infants spitted on pikes,/Whilst the mad mothers with their howls confused/Do break the clouds”. You see the strain on his face – the hope that he will not have to follow through on his threat. Yet you can also see he will go ahead if he needs to, and in this, as indeed in his desire to reclaim territory based on defunct legal boundaries, he is no better than many subsequent dictators.

One of the most revelatory aspects of this production is what our new perception of Henry does to what’s normally staged as a “meet cute” with the King of France’s daughter – his future wife, Princess Katherine. In a performance that alternates between charm and raw anger, Joséphine Callies visibly manifests the distress she feels at being promised in marriage to a man who, far from being a hero to her, seems like a violent, irrational stranger. As a result the moment of the kiss comes across as a clear violation. The rewritten ending, in which she is interviewed by an immigration officer at England’s borders, compounds the sense of ignorance and brutality.

From a strong cast, stand outs include Dharmesh Patel – who shifts deftly between the treacherous Scroop, the comically cowardly Pistol and the deceptively courteous Montjoy – and Helena Lymbery (pictured above right) as a bitterly authoritative Henry IV. Max Pappenheim’s compositions and sound design powerfully heighten the sense of unease, ranging from individual trills played with wasp-like menace to discordant arrangements of the national anthem. The talented ensemble – which includes Lois Au on the bassoon, Benjin on the fascinatingly exotic nyckelharpa, Maddie Cutter on the cello and Joanna Levine on the bass viol – skilfully navigates the musical challenges while simultaneously dodging actors who’ve escaped into the pit. Azusa Ono’s tenebrous lighting design ramps up the feeling of introversion and disquiet.

This, then, is very much a Henry V for our times, a journey into the dark heart of what rampant nationalism can do even to honourable and well-intentioned individuals. It’s something of an antidote to the season’s prevailing bonhomie and tinsel, but this bold interpretation is well worth a visit from those interested in alternative histories and hidden motivations.

@Hallibee1

We see Henry V strangle his close friend Scroop barehanded in front of us

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters