Henry V?Played by… a lady??? Well yes: this is London 2016, where women play all sorts of Shakespearean roles – Glenda Jackson returns to the stage in November to play King Lear, while Phyllida Lloyd brings her prison-set all-female trilogy of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Henry IV’ and ‘The Tempest’ for a rep season at the King’s Cross Theatre.
So there’s no need to justify casting Michelle Terry – one of our finest Shakespearean actors – as the Bard’s swashbuckling monarch. Interstingly, though, Robert Hastie’s production does justify it very well. ‘Henry V’ has the most famous prologue of any Shakespeare play, in which the Chorus draws attention to the artificiality of the set-up, and begs the audience’s ‘humble patience… kindly to judge our play’. Here the entire cast wander out in civvies, and Charlotte Cornwall’s twinkle-eyed Chorus carries Henry’s crown, scanning the cast for a lead player. She approaches a couple of likely men who look exactly right for the role of the dashing warrior king – only to hoik the crown away from them and bestow it on the mousy Terry, who looks completely shellshocked.
It’s more than just a nice touch. It provides a context outside of history for why Henry is so green in the first scene (Canterbury’s already tedious explanation of why they’re about to go to war with the French is made mansplainishly unlistenable). And the duality of her gender – a woman playing a man – gives her Henry an interesting extra dimension: she almost sadistically caresses the traiterous Scroop before having him executed, in what’s framed as an explicitly feminine gesture.
A capacity for cruelty lies at the heart of Terry’s riveting Henry. When the French king sends the English a sardonic ‘gift’ of tennis balls in exchange for the land he has confiscated, Terry’s Henry is so blazingly angry that the French herald Montjoy falls to her knees in sheer terror. The text is rejigged so Henry has French prisoners taken at the Battle of Agincourt executed as a cold-blooded tactical gesture (not as angry revenge for French atrocities, as in the text). And despite the intrinsic comedy of the final scene, in which a besuited Terry woos Ben Wiggins’s dress-wearing Princess Katherine, there’s actually something quite sinister about it, as Henry impatiently railroads her into marriage, with none of the usual romantic whimsy. It’s not so much that Terry’s Henry is a monster, more that there’s no rose-tinting of the ruthless actions that winning a war requires.
For all its streak of darkness, this is a kinetic, fast-paced production that avoids getting bogged in the sloggier minor characters and absolutely nails the comedy – Alex Bhat is hilarious as a loserish Dauphin. But it all comes back to Terry: whatever gender she’s playing, that ringing voice delivering some of the most stirring speeches ever written is worth the prices of admission alone.