BY CHARLOTTE JUCKES
Starring Hollywood A-Lister Jude Law as the king himself, Henry V is a spectacular finale to award-winning British director Michael Grandage’s 15 month season at the Noel Coward theatre. Throughout the star-studded season 100,000 tickets have been made available for just £10, attracting a whole new audience of first-time theatregoers, and giving students the chance to see actors such as Judi Dench and Daniel Radcliffe at a price that doesn’t mean you have to give up your social life for the next month.
Henry V is Shakespeare’s dramatic version of the life of the English king, and focuses on the events surrounding the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 whilst also detailing Henry’s growth from boyish young ‘Hal’ (think Prince Harry circa the Nazi costume years) to a respected king and great military leader. On opening night, journalists from publications great and small crammed into the grand theatre, rubbing shoulders with famous actors such as Derek Jacobi. An air of expectation and curiosity filled the 872 capacity theatre as one question seemed to reverberate around the room: would Jude Law be any good? The answer is a resounding yes.Law brilliantly portrays Henry with great authority and subtlety. He appears as a no-nonsense king trying to connect with his people, as exemplified by the scene in which he wanders round his soldiers’ camp in disguise in order to comfort his men and find out what they really think of him. Law’s performance is skilfully constructed, and does justice to the character’s complexity – we movingly see him grapple with the burdens of leadership and with the demons of the past. Furthermore, his performance (and Grandage’s direction) gives the audience space to question Henry’s ruthlessness and viciousness, which emerge throughout the play, notably when he commands that every soldier should ‘kill his prisoners’ to prevent the French regrouping. Whilst it is often easy to forget that there is a Hollywood movie star on-stage, Law really comes into his own during the ‘rom-com-esque’ scene with the French Princess Katherine, when it’s almost as if you’re watching a live version of The Holiday.
The supporting cast is similarly brilliant. Ashley Zhangazha opens as the Chorus and doubles up as the naïve Boy who goes off to war; as the only actor in modern dress (he wears a bleeding Union Jack t-shirt) Zhangaza stands out from the rest of the cast and powerfully acts as a link between the audience and the play, delivering his speeches with an endearing openness and clarity. There are laugh out loud moments from Ron Cook as the fiery Pistol, and Matt Ryan as the staunchly patriotic Welshman Fluellen. In such a male-dominated play, moments of femininity are hard to come by, but for the brief moments that they are on stage Jessie Buckley (as Princess Katherine) and Noma Dumezweni (as Mistress Quickly/Alice) deliver shining performances that give the audience a break from the testosterone-fuelled posturing that characterises most of Henry V.
Christopher Oram’s huge, weathered wooden stockade provides the impressively simple backdrop to the action, suggesting the ‘wooden O’ of the Globe theatre which the Chorus refers to in his opening speech, (and where the play would originally have been performed)and somewhat echoing Mike Britton’s set design for last season’s Globe production ofMacbeth.
I had read the play before, but I wouldn’t say that you have to in order to understand what’s going on. It might be worth having a quick skim-read over the Wikipedia article, but to be honest the cast deliver such great performances that you won’t get lost in the dialogue, even if you don’t catch every word. Henry V is a real must-see and I would urge anyone with even a passing interest in theatre to try and get tickets to experience this world-class production. Plus, Jude Law is still a total hottie, despite the receding hairline.