It’s once more unto the breach for director Michael Grandage and his protégé Jude Law! This unusually elegant revival of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ marks the last chapter in Grandage’s five-show run at the Noël Coward Theatre, and the last chance for the 40-year-old Law – a mainstay of Grandage’s reign at the Donmar Warehouse – to realistically carry off the 29-year-old English king.
In complete contrast to the high concept tomfoolery of the season’s previous production (‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’), Grandage keeps things simple here, with handsome period dress and a minimal wooden half-circle set. The only bit of conceptualising is the chorus/boy. Portrayed by Ashley Zhangazha as an incongruously modern, T-shirt-clad youth sent off to war by his tearful mum, he’s an affecting enough reminder that a death at Agincourt was no less pointless than one in Afghanistan.
Still, let’s not pretend that Jude Law isn’t the main attraction here. He’s a good Harry, not a great one, but fans won’t be disappointed. His verse speaking is beautifully lucid and he turns his years to his advantage: from his poised first appearance sat on an incense-clouded throne, this is a Henry whose notorious wild years are further behind him than is usual.
Yet there are moments when he pointedly dispels his kingly façade to summon the ghost of his reckless youth: working himself into a berserker fury to rip his French foes to shreds; delivering the uber-patriotic St Crispin’s Day speech with the elan of a particularly persuasive barrowboy; wooing the princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley) with a twinkling charm that reminds you how good he was in those Hollywood romcoms back in the day.
There’s able support all round – it’s a plum comic role, but Matt Ryan injects real muscle and charisma into patriotic Welsh soldier Fluellan – and, as one expects with Grandage and Shakespeare, it’s never less than crystal clear and exquisitely spoken. But it lacks the drive, passion and politics of recent productions at the Globe and NT. Grandage dampens down the play’s patriotic fervour – Law’s Henry is distinctly non-triumphalist – but also its disgust at war, and the darker moments in the climactic Battle of Agincourt are edited out.
What you’re left with is a tasteful production that retains a judicious ambivalence towards its hero’s actions. Yet for all Law’s manly railing, it’s just that bit too bloodless, and in danger of disappearing up its own class.
By Andrzej Lukowski