Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon Avon – until 20 October
London’s Barbican Theatre, 7 November-30 December
In a time of celebrity cast Shakespeare productions, it is a pleasure to observe Greg Doran’s take on Henry V and see not so much a band of brothers, but rather a company of craftsmen offering one of the most intelligent interpretations of this complex play in recent years.
Famously seized upon by directors as a platform for political comment, Henry V has often been rolled out as a platform (bandwagon) to voice an opinion upon contemporary conflict. On screen Olivier’s Harry sought to rally the nation as the 1944 Normandy landings loomed, whilst in 2003 as war raged in Iraq, Adrian Lester’s dusty jeep sped onto the Olivier stage to draw Nick Hytner’s line in the sand as he became the National’s director.
But in this show, today’s politics are sidelined in place of comment on the universal compromises that war imposes upon humanity. Doran eschews all sense of contemporary tub-thumping in place of well honed drama and lets the Bard’s verse speak to its own strengths. Broadly staged in period garb, apart from Oliver Ford Davies’ marvellous Chorus, clad in modern dress, setting out Stratford’s cockpit whilst the House lights stay on, this is an un-pretentious Henry V.
Marking a natural progression from his Prince Hal in both parts of Doran’s Henry IV, Alex Hassell accedes to the throne and his performance is a thing of beauty. Having observed his development in the preceding plays, his Henry matures before our eyes as the responsibilities of inspirational monarchy weigh upon him. Hassell brings a heroic handsome humility to the role that sheaths a steely spine. His Henry’s pragmatic ruthlessness is as credible in dealing with the traitors at Southampton, as it is in the famously troubling (and often excised) command that his troops should kill their French prisoners.
Hassell’s handling of the St Crispin’s Day speech is majestic yet free of pomposity and condescension, whilst his entreaties to his troops to treat the defeated French with decency ring with an envious integrity.
Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin needs work – it’s a complex role to carry off and he’s not quite there yet in suspending our disbelief. Elsewhere there is a fine company work to support Hassell’s Harry. Joshua Richards’ Bardolph/Fluellen offers impressive soldiers’ perspectives both on conflict and upon dutiful service. In a minor role, Sam Marks’ (who only recently played Happy opposite Hassell’s Biff in the RSC’s Death Of A Salesman) French Constable shone out as a beacon of credibility, whilst Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel, in the briefest of speeches, defines with dignity France’s pain in defeat and her nation’s hopes for the future.
As ever, the RSC’s stagecraft is world class with Stephen Brimson Lewis’ use of projections and eerily effective understage lighting in his set designs proving particularly effective.
Shortly to move to London’s Barbican Theatre, one suspects that like a fine wine, this already impressive production play will only improve with time.
Setting politics aside, this Henry V offers up a perspective on war that speaks to us all.
Runs until 20th October