Nicholas Hytner’s modern staging of Henry V at the Royal National Theatre in London transfers Shakespeare’s patriotic myth to the gritty realistic theatre of modern warfare and in doing so creates acute parallels to the recent invasion of Iraq. Indeed Hytner uses Shakespeare’s play to cynically comment on the practice of modern warfare as exercised in the field and in the media. His vision is ably supported by a gallery of crisp characterizations from a uniformly excellent ensemble led by Adrian Lester’s magnetic Henry.
Shakespeare’s 1599 epic, which deals with Henry V’s invasion of France, the defeat of the French at Agincourt and the King’s subsequent courting of the French Princess Katherine, sits well on the open Olivier stage. Authentic modern soldiers in full battle dress advance through billowing smoke, dive in the wake of gunfire from all sides, and drunkenly celebrate victory to the aggressive strains of rock music. Armored cars continually career around the stage; bombs, gunfire and even pistol shots are amplified as is Henry’s voice when he delivers his final ultimatum at the siege of Harfleur using a portable microphone.
The earlier diplomatic scenes are conducted in a steely efficient cabinet room, minutes, coffee and mineral water duly tabled with ministers drifting around in suits. The media are ever present through the ubiquitous cameramen in the field. The more patriotic sections of Henry and the King of France’s speeches are projected onto a big screen in the guise of televised propaganda to the nation, with Henry’s speech repeated with French subtitles watched with obvious chagrin by the French court, including a superbly arrogant Dauphin (played by Adam Levy as a sort of lyrical Jean –Claude Van Damme). Hytner’s most effective comment on the televised propaganda of recent months is conveyed through the short Victory video which concludes the warfare scenes – flags, shots of Henry and his victorious army, a hymn from a children’s choir and an aggressive thanksgiving prayer to God.
What is greatly to Hytner’s credit is that all of these effects are used with artistic discipline to underline the text, creating a highly intelligent, relevant and exciting reading of the play. The updated production serves the play at every moment – the verse is never swamped by it. It is Penny Downie’s Chorus who, from the first moments of the play, sets the tone. Playing the role as a dutiful civil servant, all files and books, her opening narration is impassioned in its quiet intensity to the audience. She finds the drama within the words, playing each phrase with clarity of emotion through all her speeches. Equally affecting is Cecilia Noble as Mistress Quickly, a real cockney barmaid, recalling Sir. John Falstaff’s death, the Boy (played by Russell Tovey) in his uncomprehending directness to the audience in battle and William Gaunt as the Duke of Burgundy in his chilling acceptance of Henry’s peace terms in the final scene where, with anguished emphasis and growing sorrow, he lists the devastation and death which the campaign has wreaked on France.
Similarly Adrian Lester’s multi–faceted King Henry rides above the spectacular staging. His commanding presence arises from his stillness and an innate dignity in his movement, conveying the charisma of a born leader and the animal grace of a lion. As a result, his moments of impassioned anger (for example in sentencing the traitors in the Southampton scene) are electric. His self doubt before the battle of Agincourt is genuinely poignant as are his tears in his prayer for success and his anger and frustration in the ‘ceremony’ speech where he deplores his role as king. In the next scene, by contrast, he is all quiet authority: the famous ‘Crispin’s Day’ speech a simple personal plea to his soldiers rather than a rousing war cry. It was a deeply moving and memorable moment. Adrian Lester’s potential as a leading classical actor was revealed two years ago in his Paris Hamlet for Peter Brook. With this role he has more than fulfilled that potential.
Hytner’s modern parallel does have its shortcomings. The warfare is limited to the field, whereas contemporary conflicts would also involve the use of air and sea power and, of course, King Henry leads his army into battle; a modern King (let alone a President or Prime Minister) would not do so.
More importantly, the grimly realistic battle moments (such as the shooting of the French Prisoners and the murder of the Boy) sit uneasily with the comic scenes of soldierly horseplay. Moreover, they render the final courtship scene (though well played by Lester and his Princess, Felicite Du Jeu) incongruous, especially as Ian Hogg’s King of France marvelously conveys the agony of defeat in his reluctance to give over the hand of his daughter in marriage to his conqueror.
Shakespeare’s mythical epic was a celebration of events of 150 years before its first performance. Hytner’s production creates powerful resonances with current events. Shakespeare’s play leaves the audience with a fairy tale ending – the joining of a heroic King with a beautiful Princess. Hytner’s powerful modern staging leaves us with a brooding and uneasy peace.