The Donmar’s Kit Harington-starring take on Shakespeare’s usually zippy war play is BIG. Really big. This is ‘Henry V’ given the widescreen treatment, the stage equivalent to a luxury miniseries adaptation, stretching a full half-hour longer than most productions. It’s the first version I’ve seen in which every single scene is given room to breathe - even the dopey throwaway ones like the French army bantering the night before battle.
Director Max Webster’s world-building is immaculate and classy. Fly Davis’s set is simple but grand: a massive, burnished steps and wall, that later opens to reveal a baleful St. George’s cross. But we’re transported across England and France via lush, elemental projection from Andrzej Goulding. The French characters speak in actual (surtitled) French, not the usual accented English. There are frickin’ opera singers in the cast: four of them, singing grandiose, sanctified laments over the unfolding action. Whatever the actual budget, there is the sense of no expense spared.
And yet none of this is thrown away in empty bombast. Webster’s production is carefully structured to make the story as lucid as humanly possible, with the biggest chunk of the added running time coming from a new intro crafted from bits of ‘Henry IV’. Flashing back to his wilder days, the show kicks off with Harington’s gurning Henry vomming over the stage to a remix of ‘Sweet Caroline’, followed by a compressed version of his friendship with and rejection of Steven Meo’s old skinhead Falstaff. It’s daring to insert one of Shakespeare’s god-tier characters into the play for a five-minute cameo (the star of ‘Henry IV’, Falstaff’s only role in a standard ‘Henry V’ is to die offstage). But it works, because it really feels that we’re getting the complete story here. And it’s important, because Henry’s ultimate disregard for the working-class people who made him is the major theme of Webster’s take.
Henry moves towards autocracy, not nobility
‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Eternals’ star Harington’s journey is fascinating and subtle. Much of his behaviour in the first half is pretty standard for this play. As the story of ‘Henry V’ begins, the young king is in the process of deciding whether he should attempt to take his family’s French lands back (after almost falling asleep during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s byzantine PowerPoint presentation on French inheritance law – a brilliant way of enlivening one of the most notoriously dull speeches in Shakespeare). A sneering attempt by the French ambassador to put him in his place (by offering an insulting gift of tennis balls) prompts Henry to invade. He is charismatic, well-liked, and insofar as England going to war with France makes any sense today, he seems justified enough by the standards of the Late Middle Ages.
But three events seem to take their toll on him. The first is his rejection of his mentor, Falstaff. The second is his piteous execution of the treacherous Lord Scroop: played gender-reversed by Joanna Songi, it is here strongly implied that she is Henry’s ex-lover – you can see how shocked everyone is that he’s gone this far. And at the end of the first half, he impassively watches the hanging of Bardolph (Claire-Louise Bates), his old friend from the Falstaff days, sentenced to death for stealing from a French church. Harry has gone into kingship not fully formed; these are the events that do shape his psychology, and not for the better.
By the time Agincourt comes around, he’s become detached from his men. His troops react with numb horror when he makes them execute the French prisoners – something we unusually here see take place on stage. When the famously improbable casualty figures from the battle come around, Harington’s Henry seems to be lying about the low number of English deaths, not even looking at the numbers he’s given, with his troops staring at each other stony-faced when he claims only ‘five and twenty’ were been killed. In the final scene, he doesn’t ‘woo’ Anoushka Lucas’s dignified French princess Katherine so much as coerce her - as with everyone else around him, he does not view her as an equal, and when she tries to disagree with him he simply orders her what to do.
It’s a great performance from Harington. It’s not as simple as saying his Henry is a bloodthirsty posho, or means badly, or actively enjoys the war while his men suffer, because on the whole those things are untrue (even if they are all a little true). We see the suffering in his eyes, the hesitancy in his voice, the doubt, the regret. But he’s othered from his friends right from the beginning, and he only becomes more distant, the horrible decisions he has to make exacerbating his sense of separateness from the little people. Most Henries grow into their power in a positive sense. But Harington’s Henry moves towards autocracy, not nobility.
Harington’s performance isn’t the be-all and end-all of a production ultimately still defined by Webster’s expansive, cinematic treatment. There are plenty of great supporting turns, including Millicent Wong’s brilliantly puckish Chorus, storming through the uncut text with an athlete’s agility. Following his cameo as Falstaff, Steven Meo puts in an excellent turn as the soldier Llewellyn. Normally a ludicrous light relief Welshman, here he’s a grizzled veteran whose foibles comes across as borderline psychotic: the scene where he forces Danny Kirrane’s Pistol to eat a leek is violent, protracted and genuinely distressing.
‘Henry V’ is usually treated as an entertaining, mid-tier play that serves as a comment on the nature of war. But Webster’s is the first production I’ve ever seen to approach it as a great character study, up there with ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Richard III’ or indeed Falstaff in ‘Henry IV’. Probably, he slightly flatters the play. But at the end of the day he gets away with it, in a broodingly impressive production.