The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse must be one of the most beautiful theatres in the world: a wooden wonder, with its gorgeously painted ceiling and stunning candlelight. For this version of Henry V the stage begins totally cloaked in a washed out pastel green, the back stage draped in highly theatrical ruched curtains, and rows of chairs opposing each other along each side of the performance area. It’s been reimagined. And that’s precisely what happens with this classic Shakespeare play.
Commonly played as a nationalistic celebration of England’s triumph over France at the Battle of Agincourt, the play follows King Henry V’s rise as a military leader. This production questions the traditional portrayal of Henry, suggesting that, rather than being a hero, rather he sacrificed his countrymen to elevate his own power and public identity.
Directed by Headlong’s Holly Race Roughan, it’s in contemporary dress and highly timely, given that we recently gained a new monarch and are yet to see what change that will bring; that we are still hacking our way through Brexit, in dispute with Europe; that lying and gaslighting from the highest powers in the land are news headlines; indeed, that while hundreds made sacrifices during Covid those in power clearly did not.
The play feels very deconstructed, cut back to 2 ½ hours. It is self-consciously theatrical, with the cast routinely announcing scene numbers and locations, whilst creepy (yet magical) music insidiously supports the unsettling atmosphere. Tarnished mirrors are revealed that cause the audience to be reflected in the action taking place. This imposing design work from Moi Tran speaks stridently of a manipulated civic order and raises questions of responsibility and complicity.
The production cleverly draws out challenging themes, reimagining Henry as a proud and severe monarch who hides brutal truths behind crafted rhetoric, and questioning public condonation of abuse. Oliver Johnstone is impressive, playing the King with precision, volatility and conviction; manifesting the state of the nation in his performance as extreme and fragmented. Even his “Once more unto the breach” speech is delivered in a surprisingly fragile manner, turning expectation on its head.
There’s a very strong cast, playing tightly as an ensemble and multi-rolling with skill. However, this curbed reframing left me alienated, finding it difficult to engage with the human tragedies being described. Hard to differentiate between, the ensemble of characters seemed outlined rather than fully drawn. There’s a story of de-humanisation told here, and loss of individuality, but without feeling much for the people depicted I found myself only viewing an interestingly reinterpreted history; which is in itself admirable, but without great emotional impact. This may have been deliberate, but the ending of the play then takes another direction, dealing brilliantly and emotively with Katherine’s emigration to England (heartrendingly performed by Josephine Callies), leaving us uncertain.
This production offers a highly thought-provoking reinterpretation of an historical figure and brings astute and chilling commentary on today’s society. However, its rather severe style means there is little opportunity to identify a warm side of humanity in the characterisation and offer contrast with Henry’s merciless persona. It is clearly an intelligent and admirable exercise, and although it leaves it until very late to expose the emotional consequences of exploitative power, when it does so it has real impact.
Directed by: Holly Race Roughan
Designed by: Moi Tran
Candle Consultant & Lighting Design by: Azusa Ono
Composer & Sound Design by: Max Pappenheim
Costume Supervision by: Hattie Barsby
Produced by: Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong, with Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Henry V plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until 4 January 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.