Henry V by William Shakespeare. The Donmar, Earlham Street, London to 9 April 2022. 3***. William Russell

Henry V is arguably very much a play for today as a man takes his country to war in Pursuit of a spurious claim that the land he has invaded belongs to him. Events have rather overtaken the programme for this sound and fury packed production directed by Max Webster. A lengthy essay tries to suggest it has something to do with the climate crisis which is one way of looking at it but at a time when Ukraine suffers a war and invasion by forces led, admittedly from behind, by a man rewriting history, which is what Henry of Monmouth was doing, the carnage of war on the stage seems all too uncomfortably relevant. This is not the patriotic version Olivier made famous in his film, and it does differ in many respects from pretty well every previous production. Kit Harrington’s Henry is decisive, well spoken but never quite seems to command the stage and when, having won the war, or rather defeated the French because in life he lost it by dying too soon, he turns up in his dress uniform to woo the French princess he could as easily be a junior member of the House of Windsor back from Afghanistan. It should be, with its great showpiece speeches and the eve of battle scenes, a play Henry dominates but Harrington is really just part of a very good ensemble. Everyone doubles or trebles roles and, when playing the French, talk in French. The scenes are translated on surtitle screens on either side of the auditorium placed so that you have to look away from the action and sometimes one does feel Shakespeare did not pen the English. It is an ingenuous idea – in the original only the French princess’s scenes are in French – but somehow remains a gimmick rather than something integral to the story. As usual there is plenty of gender blind casting which, by and large, works well enough since this is modern warfare, not men in armour with swords, and some colour blind casting. That does sometime cause slight problems. In the early scene Canterbury and Ely, there to get the church’s backing for Henry’s dynastic ambitions, are played by Jude Aduwudike and Olivier Huband which one accepts. But in due course they go on to play the French King and the Dauphin, whose gift of tennis balls to Henry is one of history’s famous insults beyond bearing, and suddenly one is conscious of their having been someone else and far from French.They deliver very fine performances as the King and his less than perfect son but there really is an uncomfortable jolt when they appear.
The low life common soldiery, Bardolph, Nym, Llewellyn, Pistol and the rest are all well cast and the rejection of Falstaff scenes from Henry 14 Part two have been included right at the beginning just to show how ruthless this young man can be.
What the evening most strikingly does is create a world at war. The set is a series of platforms back by a vast screen which seems made of marble but is actually almost transparent and onto which images of battle are projected while the cast enact the fighting – the audience is regularly straffed with bullets. For the great speech “into the breach” speech a gantry suddenly descends as the back “wall” splits in two and on comes Henry to somewhat precariously orate. The doubling means that one moment someone is English, at another French, differentiated by the colour of their uniforms and while it adds to the confusion of war it does not make the story any clearer, although the cause – Henry’s dubious claim – is dispensed with in a brilliant lecture with a line of succession projected on that back wall which everyone treats wit the contempt it deserves.
That war is hell for all involved is being set out clearly on our television screens and somehow watching this pretend war becomes slightly distasteful as the stage gets ever dirtier, a small group sing choral numbers, and the projections of explosions get every more lurid. Maybe Olivier hit the right note for his time, but whether this one does for our time is open to question. Harrington is a household face from Game of Thrones which meant there were certainly fans in the audience, some of whom did not last beyond the interval. He gives a credible and fine performance but overall this is not one of the great stagings of the play.

King of France/Canterbury/Erpingham: Jude Akuwudike.
Jamy/Grey/Gloucester/Tenor: Seumas Begg.
Bardolpj/Bates/Frenc Soldier: Claire Louise Cordwell.
Exeter/Constable of France: Kate Duchene.
Henry: Kit Harrington.
The Dauphin/Ely: Olivier Huband.
Mistress Quigley/William/Macmorris: Melissa Johns.
Mountjoy/Nym: David Judge.
Pistol.Westmorland: Danny Kerrane.
Katherine/Gower: Anoushka Lucas.
Orleans/Bedford/Bass Baritone: Adam Maxey.
Llewellyn/Falstaff: Steven Meo.
Alice/Cambridge/Salisbury/Mezzo soprano: Marinella Philips.
Scroop/Rambures/Harfleur/York: Joanna Songi.
Chorus/Boy: Milicent Wong.

Director: max Webster.
Designer: Fly Davis.
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran.
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing.
Movement Director: Benoit Swan Pouffer,
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding.
Music: Andrew T. Mackay.
Fight Director: Mate Walters.
Voice Coach: Barbara Houseman.
Dialect Coach: Fabien Enjalric. Majella Hurley.

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