Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2022
Photo by Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Shakespeare
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‘Henry V’ review

3 out of 5 stars

Henry V gets a Richard III makeover in this none-more-dark new take on the patriotic war play


Time Out says

Has there ever been a play more comprehensively subverted than ‘Henry V’?

Legend has it that it was once viewed as a patriotic, willy-waving drama that unabashedly revelled in England’s triumph over France during one bloody episode in the Hundred Years War. 

But aside from a weirdly old-school version with Jude Law a few years back, I honestly can’t remember a modern version of ‘Henry V’ – and it’s a play that gets staged a lot – that doesn’t try and fly in the face of its nominally patriotic purpose.

Which is fine: a simple-minded celebration of decking the French does sell short one of Shakespeare’s most exciting and accessible dramas.

The problem, though, is that the architecture and reputation of the play are such that you can’t just coast by on subversion alone. Subversion is factored in now, and has to be done meticulously – see the Donmar’s grandiose Kit Harington version earlier this year.

This darkly comic co-production between the Globe and Headlong amps up the darkness around Oliver Johnston’s Henry to almost preposterous levels. Nicking a bit of ‘Henry IV Part 2’ as a prologue, Holly Race Roughan’s production shows Henry V as a bullied son who never really manages to master his emotions, vacillating from one extreme to the other, rarely in a good way. In one of several shocking deviations from tradition, he not only condemns his childhood friend Scrope to death for his part in a conspiracy, but carries out the sentence himself, throttling the life out of him with his bare hands while his courtiers awkwardly look elsewhere. 

He’s not quite Henry V done as Richard III. But he’s not far off, with ‘extreme unhinging daddy issues’ replacing ‘just a straight-up evil dude’ as his prime motive. It’s interesting – thrilling, even – to watch familiar scenes reworked and darkened: ‘into the breach dear friends’ as a sinister, half-muttered soliloquy; or a grinning Henry executing Eleanor Henderson’s sassy Prince Louis on the field of Agincourt in revenge for the tennis balls ‘incident’ at the beginning.

Still, much as I enjoyed its camp black humour, I struggled with why any of it was actually happening. Henry’s psychopathy could perhaps be seen as emblematic of England’s behaviour as a nation; or it could be because his dad slapped him around plus it’s a lot of pressure being king. But either way, having him wander around murdering multiple people that he doesn’t murder in the actual text seemed A Bit Much, frankly. Yes, ‘Henry V’ was (probably) intended as a patriotic affair, but it’s so endlessly reclaimed now that you need to have something to say beyond stamping on the original meaning with ever more violence. 

A drolly leftfield coda to the production suggests a political intent that’s simply not discernible earlier. Johnson’s oscillation between helpless tears, murderous rages and Henry’s general insistence on treating the French with respect is good acting, but never really feels reconciled into a clear psychological profile beyond ‘dude is messed up’. In general, it subscribes to pretty much every modern cliché about how to do this play – you just know the wooing scene at the end is going to be traumatic – but pushes it further and seems to assume that that’ll be enough.

And it almost is: it zips along a treat, has a fistful of great new jokes and there is something impressively irreverent about the plethora of cuts and changes. In the final analysis, none of this adds up to any great new meaning. But it has enough demonic verve to style it out. Just.


£5-£62. Runs 2hr 20min
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