Where: Noel Coward Theatre, London / When: 30th November 2013
Henry V is the first of Shakespeare’s historical plays I’ve seen, and what a version to see. Classily designed, acted and directed, Jude Law gives an engaging and spirited performance in the title role, supported by a well-rounded cast.
The play is a long one, so for those that are unfamiliar with the plot (as I was), catch up here.
Firstly, the set design was utterly brilliant. A bare, wooden, whitewashed ‘U’ shape formed the main stage, with a sense of space behind it, allowing characters to charge off towards the action, without having to construct multiple sets. It’s plain, whitewashed look also created a slightly dreamlike quality, as if we were imagining the action. This feeling was enhanced by the presence of our very own Greek chorus, an omnipresent narrator who addressed the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall at regular times throughout the play. The young actor playing the narrator (a very good Ashley Zhangazha) was dressed in modern clothing, making him distinct amongst the rest of the cast, who were dressed in period appropriate clothing. He also doubled up as another role, that of a young ‘boy’ soldier. This drifting in and out of the story – in plain view of the audience – only added to the dreamlike quality.
I have to confess that I found the first half rather tedious. Though the acting was good, very little seemed to actually happen and it felt like a lot of scenes of talking about possible battles, but with nothing really driving the action. Things picked up considerably in the second half, when battle is commenced and the actors are able to let loose a bit more. The final scene between Henry and Princess Katharine of France was delighful, but seemed a little incongrous. It was so lightly played and funny (with Law admirably making fun of his own, real-life signs of aging) it seemed a liittle odd coming at the end of a play about war. While the scene was enjoyable to watch, I did feel it interuppted the flow of the piece, though there were clearly limits on how Grandage could incorporate it smoothly, with its deliberate change of tone and pace.
I think it would be fair to say that many of the audience members were there to see Jude Law (I was killing two birds with one stone – seeing what was a new play for me and an actor I had not yet seen on stage) and he did not disappoint. I had heard good things about Law as a stage performer and he filled the role of Henry with charisma and energy. It made me wonder why he doesn’t play more of these traditional ‘heroes’. His Henry was commanding, warm and vigorous. Coupled with Law’s stage presence, it meant he was convincing as a leader and you felt his passion for England and his belief in his own quest. Law was ably supported by a great cast of supporting actors, with Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen as particular stand outs, along with the previously mentioned Zhangazha.
Henry V is the closing show of the inaugral Michael Grandage Company season. The collection of plays shown at the Noel Coward has been an interesting one, taking the sort of work and performances usually seen in subsidised theatre and putting them in a commercial setting. Judging by teh packed out theatre each time I’ve been, it’s been a success. There’s no question that this may well have a lot to do with the consistently starry casting, but the variety of plays produced indicates that Grandage is perhaps willing to experiment further, now this first independent season is under his belt.