Henry V is Sir Nicholas Hytner’s first play as director since taking over the reins at the National Theatre. As the ethics of waging war are called into sharp focus on the international stage with the situation in Iraq, Hytner’s production resonates.
From the opening, when the Archbishop of Canterbury discusses a confusing if not downright illegal claim to the French throne with the youthful king, the motives for war and the actions of authority figures are immediately called into question. The production’s use of live TV feeds to broadcast Henry’s propaganda – with French subtitles – recalls addresses given to the Iraqi people by George W Bush and Tony Blair during the recent war.
Past productions of Henry V have put across a patriotic message – notably Olivier’s 1944 film. But Hytner’s subversive vision is to show us the failings of the world order today through Shakespeare’s lines. The stage is uncluttered and well used throughout, with a multi-purpose screen providing simple but versatile and effective backdrops for projection and lighting. Scenes in the French court are denoted by elegant chairs and amusingly gargantuan vases of flowers – calling to mind Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Battle scenes are effectively choreographed and charged with energy, benefiting from dramatic live music by Simon Webb and a selection of fully functioning, battle-camouflaged Land Rovers.
Adrian Lester as Henry is a suitably boyish figure whose presence and words nevertheless dominate his elders. His movements are purposeful, his voice is steady and commanding, and he never loses the popular touch. Whether attempting to understand Canterbury’s arguments or clumsily trying to woo the French princess Catherine, and especially when he is rallying his troops, his stage presence captivates.
Felicit du Jeu as Catherine is also a delight – she is glacial in her imperiousness and amusing in her English lessons, but she also conveys the horror at being offered to a conquering boy-king as part of a peace treaty. Others are less successful – Ian Hogg as Charles VI of France is at times almost inaudible, and Penny Downie’s Chorus was in voice a diva but in appearance an out of place librarian.
But these are minor quibbles. By the end of the play we believe we have learned a little more about the world – and have enjoyed an evening of first-rate theatre.