Thursday 16 January 2014

Henry V @ The Noël Coward Theatre

Henry V, a man with the trust of a nation upon him; a man expected to be a great and motivational leader to his troops; a man forced to set aside his personal views in favour of his country.  It’s not easy being king.

Likewise it’s a tough gig for Jude Law, taking on the lead protagonist in one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated history plays.  The plot of Henry V is relatively simple, the play essentially forming a character study of kingship, what it means to be a good leader, or a hero. 

Law deals with the pressure as admirably as the king himself. Despite his slender frame and graceful movement across the stage, his Henry is a charismatic leader – charming during court scenes, yet equally commanding and inspirational in battle.  His is a ruthless king, angry at those who defy him yet mournful of those who die in battle.  Henry V contains some of Shakespeare’s grandest speeches, which Law rousingly performs with impeccable diction.  The final scene sees Henry wooing his future queen, Catherine – here Law reverts to the typically hapless and endearing romantic hero we’ve seen him play in so many rom-coms, but it works in context for a thoroughly amusing and entertaining scene that contrasts with the machismo of the previous acts.  Law certainly lives up to his star-billing.

The supporting cast provide much hilarity, in particular Matt Ryan’s bumbling Fluellen and Ron Cook’s cynical Pistol.  Ashley Zhangazha is an eloquent Chorus, clearly delineating the play’s structure, though his unnecessary doubling as the Boy is a little confusing.

Yet, whilst Grandage has teased some superb, colourful performances from his cast, visually the production is bare and a little dreary.  Christopher Oram’s wooden stockade set provides a Globe-like backdrop to the period costumes, doorways and Neil Austin’s subtle lighting design hinting at a world beyond the stage.  As Chorus implores in his opening Prologue, the audience are required to use their imagination – something this production takes too literally.  The lighting and ambient music (Adam Cork) certainly provide atmosphere, but the production feels too static, the actors either stood still or running from scene to scene.  It makes you wish Grandage had taken a few more creative risks rather than relying on his star cast.

That said, this remains a lucid and engaging (if safe) Henry V that might be aimed squarely at mainstream audiences, but proves Law is a great interpreter of Shakespeare’s verse.


Watch: Henry V is the final play in the Grandage Season and runs until 15th February.