Henry V has exploded onto the Olivier stage with uncanny timeliness. Well-worn images of British Tommys struggling through the Gulf heat are transposed into battle-weary troops massed outside the besieged walls of Harfleur and skirmishing on the battlefield of Agincourt . Troop carriers and jeeps scamper noisily across the vast, darkened stage, emerging through a literal iron curtain that towers mercilessly above the action. This is a production full of grit and sand and dirt and blood. It revels in its militaristic spin, exposing the political manoeuvring of a king of England and Wales determined to reclaim his self-avowed status as ruler of France.
Nicholas Hytner's flawless direction not only captures the intrigue of Shakespeare's play and successfully transposes it into the twenty-first century, but also creates a theatrical event as fresh and as evocative as it must originally have appeared in 1599. The design of Tim Hatley is deceptively simple. Mark Henderson's lighting subtle and unobtrusive, whilst Simon Webb's musical score, a rock/hip-hop backdrop to an MTV obsessed media circus, underpins the propaganda and the jingoistic displays of video live-feed. Every photo-opportunity, every soundbite chewed over and spat back at the gore-struck audience with exploitative relish.
Such a great production deserves a great cast. Hytner has brought together such a cast, with ensemble performances and moments of individual acting magic. Shining gloriously through these moments is the haunting character of Henry himself, played with regal dignity and devious fortitude by Adrian Lester. Every word, every nuance reassures us that this is a man to be followed, to death if needs be. No swashbuckling one dimensional hero, but a leader of men and divine ruler, who has embraced the responsibility of kingship with determination, sometimes bitterness, but always that sense of duty which raises the character into the folk hero of Shakespeare's day. At a time of uncertainty with an ageing childless queen on the English throne, how magical must this portrayal of a glorious past have seemed.
Lester can appear arrogant when necessary, generous, honest, relentlessly patriotic, but also as vulnerable as a young Prince Hal, facing his destiny with human fear and loneliness. Lester lets us into the heart and mind of this monarch, lets us share his success, and rarely, his failure, always with an honesty, simplicity and clarity of performance which will haunt me for many years to come.
William Gaunt as the Archbishop of Canterbury and David Weston as the Bishop of Ely give splendid performances as the politically motivated clerics determined to support a king's martial intent in return for fiscal leniency towards the ill-gotten wealth of the Church. The whole is debated over a vast boardroom table, the fat-cats of British civil service jostling for position, advising and cajoling a king who relentlessly acts within the law -- like some latter-day Hitler spiralling into power.
Lester is well supported by his lords, each fulfilling their aristocratic function to the full. No polo-playing, partying hoorays here. These are military men ready and willing to risk all for their king, country and honour. Tom McKay, Tim Treloar and Peter Blythe, as Gloucester, Bedford and Exeter, and Robert Horwell, Faz Singhateh and Tony Devlin as York, Westmorland and Warwick, are the backbone of this Plantagenet family fighting force. Every character a complete and convincing whole.
Of course, Henry V is famous for the absence of Falstaff. Not in this hi-tech production. Where else could old ne'er-do-wells like Pistol, Nym, Bardolph and the Mistress Pistol, nee Quickly see their old comrade but in the looped video in the public bar. Sobbing into pints of beer before the chance for pillage and glory in France, the group pay respects to their dead leader, a man broken by the disregard of this new king for his old carousing companions.
Jude Akuwudike is a wide-boy knave of a Pistol, with Robert Horwell and David Kennedy as Nym and Bardolph, lager-louts in England shirts stained with beer and crisps. Is this the best that England has to offer Henry? Russell Tovey plays the former page to Falstaff, a canny lad who knows when to steer clear of danger. These fearful troops are thrust into the belly of France . No wonder the result is carnage.
As for the French, what a motley crew they turn out to be. All except the future Queen Catherine of England that is, sympathetically played by Felicite du Jeu. Ian Hogg is an ageing Charles the Sixth, Charles the Mad of the history books, whilst his Louis, the Dauphin, is a smarmy geezer and no mistake. Hints of bestiality surround this kung fu poseur, content to write odes to his horse, and heap scorn on the ragged English troops, led by a supposedly fickle king. The French have read too much of their own propaganda, and are woefully defeated by a hungry and sick 'band of brothers'. This is Shakespearean frog-bashing the Sun would be proud of. Perhaps Henry V was the last person to lead us united into Europe .
The troops themselves are a strangely Great British bunch. At a time when England's relationship with Ireland was tarnished with murder and exploitation, when the Welsh were viewed with suspicion and the Scots as downright threats, Shakespeare provides Henry with four Captains, an Englishman, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Scot played by Rupert Wickham, Robert Blythe, Tony Devlin and Rohan Siva. These national stereotypes blunder in and out of fights, in and out of the king's company, and still provide the guts of the British army. We relish their moment of triumph, and the post-war party is brash and loud and strangely poignant.
All this on the pretext of an insult delivered by Rupert Wickham's smooth French Ambassador, with his gift of a 'treasure' of tennis balls for this wayward Hal turned hero-king. Our pretext for war has been the vain search for weapons of mass destruction. Their pretext the need to repay an offence which smacks of boarding school bullying. How far will this king go to get where he wants? As far as ordering the massacre of French prisoners of war, that's how far, an act which Hytner's production boldly faces head on. As the English soldiers turn away from this unpalatable order, it is left to a loan sergeant to machine gun the hooded, kneeling, mercy pleading prisoners into the dust. This is war, and the Olivier stage resounds with its glory and its infamy. This production must not be missed by anyone who cares about British theatre at its best.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003