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REVIEW: Henry V at RSC

Wellesbourne Airfield
Wellesbourne Airfield

There’s always something terrifically accomplished and elegant about director Greg Doran’s plays, and Henry V does not disappoint in that respect.

It looks grand for starters. The spartan set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis vacillates between Hogwarts-alike grand hall for the indoor scenes, conjured by a simple backdrop with a strange, eye-boggling hologram effect, and abstract arty backgrounds, all Rothko-inspired maroons and greys, for the outdoor scenes. Post battle the Perspex floor is lit by arterial blood-red lights. The design cues are clear: there are multi-layered complexities to this seemingly simple tale of how the mighty Brits kicked French arse at the Battle of Agincourt, exactly 600 years ago next month.

Those of you that saw Alex Hassell in Henry IV Parts I and II, will not be at all surprised to learn that his journey from roguish Prince Hal to warrior King Henry is a triumph. His is a multifaceted performance: switching from comical quizzical asides, soulful vulnerability to alpha-male military leader with plenty of sexual allure with utter believability.

He looks to the heavens a lot — this is a chap who clearly thinks he has God on his side leading him to righteous victory. Fundamentalism anyone?

There’s also laughs aplenty in what is essentially a grim tale of warring folk — the Irish, Welsh and Scots soldiers, Fluellen, Jamy and Macmorris are hilarious. But even the comedy here is tinged with perspective. The Eastcheap drinkers, mourning the loss of Falstaff, sign up with Henry… Nym (Christopher Middleton) waggling his sole weapon, a broken sword, poignantly indicates the tragicomedy of the whole business of Tudor armies and their often futile and fatal endeavours.

Despite the evident brilliance of this take on Henry V, however, the inherent problems of the play are still there. It’s blooming long and really, besides a bloody great battle (depicted off stage) not a lot really happens. Even the love story — Henry gets the hand of the French royal daughter Katherine (a delightfully warm and humorous Jennifer Kirby) — is tacked on as a clumsy denouement.

Jeremy Paxman points out in an essay in the programme that the play is neither pro- nor anti-war, just “about going to war”… and I’m afraid that seems a cop out today. Six hundred years of wars since Agincourt deserves commentary with a bit more bite, and despite the company’s best efforts, this doesn’t quite have the teeth.

See the october issue of Focus magazine (free with the Herald this week) to read our interview with Alex Hassell

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