Poster for Henry V, featuring a suited man holding up his hand in a persuading gesture, in front of a smoke cloud.

April 23, 2022, by Peter Kirwan

Henry V (Donmar Warehouse) @ Broadway Cinema via NT Live

In a pre-show interview that served as paratext to the NT Live broadcast of the Donmar’s Henry VKit Harington spoke candidly about his own experience of addiction and recovery. His substance use, at a time when his global fame was at a peak, reflected one response to the pressures and expectations of fame; his subsequent recovery allowed him to narrativise that experience in relation to Hal’s profligate days. Alongside this, Harington spoke of what drew him to the character of Henry V; he had no interest in playing the patriotic war hero (which one might have expected from his Jon Snow days), and was instead struck by two moments in the text: Henry’s killing of the French prisoners, and Henry’s kissing of Katharine of France without obtaining her consent. Framed thus, the paratext implied a desire by the actor to explore and confront his own demons through a character who repulsed him as much as appealed to him. This was not a Henry V designed to get Dominic Cavendish kneeling in a patriotic fervour and weeping in celebration of England; indeed, as the production’s final moments showed, this production was deeply sceptical about what England even is, and to whom it belongs.

Two key creative interventions in Max Webster’s production worked to displace associations of Henry with a pure English nobility. The first was a lengthy prologue sequence, following the first Chorus, which mashed up scenes from 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. Harington’s Hal vomited in a seedy nightclub while the denizens of Eastcheap partied around him. Hal snogged Bardolph (Claire-Louise Cordwell), got aggressive with Nym (David Judge) and taunted Falstaff (Steven Meo) with threats of becoming a hangman. Stripped of the need to develop a three-play arc for Henry, Harington instead played these scenes as a full-on retreat from responsibility, snorting coke as he tried to lose himself in noise and sex and substances. The suddenness of the news of the king’s death – and of Henry’s rejection of Falstaff – left no time for reconciliations, assurances of faith and responsibility, or indeed any kind of transition from the renegade to the king. As such, this Henry felt less proven than ever; it was his response to the war in France, not his conversations with his dying father, that would prove his fitness to be king. This war was a hangover.

The second major intervention was the production’s multilingualism. Henry V is notoriously inconsistent in its use of other languages, but here, all of the French scenes were translated into French and subtitled for both the theatre and broadcast audiences. This had the effect of creating a much fuller sense of the cultural integrity of the French, and of what precisely was at stake in Katherine’s English-language scene, as she prepared herself to speak the language of the conqueror. When English and French met, the power play over who spoke in what language (often coupled with asides in the character’s native tongue) became key to the dynamics of the scene. Further, Llewellyn (Meo, taking the character’s modern Welsh name) regularly spoke in Welsh, and the Boy (Millicent Wong; as a sidenote, I think that female pronouns were used when referring to the character, but the name remained ‘Boy’, which seemed to here indicate the status/position rather than gender) resorted to Mandarin when expressing her true feelings about her situation. In emphasising the linguistic heterogeneity of this world, Henry’s attempts to impose English – and thus Englishness – became all the more discomfiting.

Pleasingly, especially for a production with a famous lead actor, this Henry V was a true ensemble production. From the first reception of the French ambassador onwards, Henry was inscrutable. This wasn’t because he was cold or even particularly guarded, but because he was unpredictable, with the other characters treating him with caution, unable to be sure of his thinking. Sometimes he would jump up and laugh with his courtiers; at other times he might seem disinterested (falling asleep during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s PowerPoint presentation); at other times, the violence of his pronouncements would shock everyone. It was clear that this Henry was trying hard to work out who he was meant to be as king, and that those around him were unsure of how much they could control or steer him. As such, while Henry was central to events, it was the reactions to him that told the story. In one of the standout moments, Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners – presented here as a direct reaction to Henry’s grief at the murder of the Boys – was given impulsively, Henry pacing swiftly back and forth across the stage and wiping at his face with grief. His order was greeted initially with stunned silence and expressions of shock; Henry made his meaning crystal clear by pulling out a knife, marching to the line of prisoners and slitting the throat of one, who died messily against the scrim. He left Exeter (Kate Duchêne) to give the execution order, which emerged from Duchêne’s throat as a strangled scream, quickly drowned out by the ensuing gunfire.

This moment was played for all the horror of a war crime, but was anticipated by several earlier moments of brisk brutality. This Henry wasn’t a sociopath – his condemnation of his ‘bedfellow’ Scroop (Joanna Songi) and his one-time lover(?) Bardolph was tinged with regret at the necessity of these acts – but his unflinching and unmerciful judgements shocked those around him. Bardolph’s execution, which closed the second half, was staged in full, Cordwell swinging and jerking from a noose while enlarged images of her face were projected onto the backdrop. Henry stood there, watching the dangling body, long after everyone else had left the stage. In his own mind, it was clear that he was doing what was necessary; but the fear that Henry instilled in others was palpable. Later, when Williams (Melissa Johns) realised that it was the King who she had challenged, her reaction as Henry leaned down from a higher level to threaten her was one of complete petrification.

As such, it seemed that Henry led through fear rather than inspiration. ‘Once more unto the breach’ was delivered from a gantry at a level just above the heads of his soldiers, and certainly seemed to do the trick, with some cries of support from below; but he remained above his soldiers, not amongst them. Later, the ‘band of brothers’ speech evinced a somewhat more muted response; the assorted nobles were encouraged by it, but remained sitting, reflective, rather than geared up. The implication that his troops were more scared of him than inspired by him came out rather in their reactions to his expressions of joy. Williams’s angry-relieved ‘Fuck me!’ when Henry revealed he was only playing a trick on her showed just how terrified she had been, but more powerful was Henry’s completely inappropriately jubilant response to Mountjoy’s (Judge) admission of an English victory. Henry whooped and cheered, laughing and running up and down the stage, and even triumphing in only twenty-five English having been killed. Everyone else on the stage just looked . . . tired. The dissociation of Henry’s reactions from those of his troops suggested someone who was not a brother at all; rather, Henry was living his own narrative, regardless of the impact on those around him. In the Chorus’s final speech, she paused on the line ‘made his England bleed’, and repeated it several times, stressing the ‘his’, before switching to ‘our’ England. ‘Made our England bleed’, Wong intoned, angrily, as distorted noise filled the speakers. The anger at England’s co-option into the power games of the elite came through uncompromisingly.

Sympathies were less with Henry, then, than with other groups. The French – with the inevitable exception of the cocky, cock-grabbing Dauphin (Olivier Huband) – were presented with dignity. Jude Akuwudike, as the King of France, calmly assessed the situation, supported by Katharine (Anoushka Lucas), who had a place at his councils, and who acted to mitigate the hot-headed responses of her brother. This relatively collective approach went some way towards mitigating the scenes of boasting, instead presenting the French court as a family unit that made collective decisions. The choice to create a racialised distinction between the English – predominantly white – and the French – predominantly Black – worked to suggest something of the racialised aspects of nationalism here; a scene of the English forces partying after the victory at Agincourt, with St George’s flags, binge-drinking, ‘Sweet Caroline’ and throwing up, evoked the least pleasant aspects of a white British nationalism triumphing over the more dignified and racially diverse French armies.

This aspect was extended into Katherine’s scenes. The language-learning scene was staged as a boxing training session, with Alice (Marienella Phillips) drilling Katherine on her English while also guiding her punches. Katherine was a savvy operator, learning the language not in preparation to be a vassal, but so that she could participate fully in the negotiations. Later, left alone with the victorious Henry, she was at the heart of one of the most uncomfortable wooing scenes I’ve seen in productions of this play. Henry’s attempts to be charming were often inadvertently winsome – Katherine and Alice laughed openly at some of his stumblings and self-deprecations – but Henry was unwilling to make himself truly vulnerable, and continually reverted to the formal entitlement accorded him by his position. Katherine was happy to show her enjoyment of the situation, but refused to give any ground. The whole was uncomfortable, but became much more so when Henry tried to force a kiss on her; she refused outright and angrily, backing away, and the furious tension between them continued as the French court reassembled in the wake of Henry making clear to Katherine that his terms would be the ones that they followed – and, with the nobles gathered and watching, Henry then planted a kiss firmly on her face that he knew she would be unable to resist. Henry’s entitlement and violence here were of a piece with his actions throughout the play, actions of a man who has realised he can have what he wants, regardless of what others may want or need.

The other characters who received unusual prominence here were the Eastcheap crew, in particular Danny Kirrane’s Pistol. Pistol was a big man and the representative of a particular kind of working-class English identity, brusque and blunt, pig-headed and often ignorant – but sympathetic rather than merely comic. In many ways, this was the standout performance of the production, because Pistol’s bombast and cowardice don’t lend themselves to an obviously nuanced reading. What Kirrane achieved was the embodiment of a bluff moral compass. He was flawed, for sure – rude, tempestuous, and unsparing in his prejudice against the Welsh. But his actions were always driven by a sense of solidarity and communal need. He put himself at risk in pleading for Bardolph; he told the disguised King his views frankly; he instilled the necessary spirit in the Eastcheap crew as they headed off for war. By the end of the production, he was a broken man. Llewellyn – a particularly grating sycophant in this production, driven with fervour when claiming Henry as Welsh, and deliberately picking fights with Macmorris and Pistol – beat him brutally with a sock cudgel and a heavy leek, and held a knife to Pistol’s throat to force him to eat. The ‘other leek’ in his pocket was his dick, and he pissed on Pistol’s prostrate body. As Pistol, left alone, sat up, he let himself feel the weight of Mistress Quickly’s death, and put his own gun in his mouth. While he didn’t shoot himself, the emphasis that the production gave to Pistol’s downward arc was one answer to the question of whose England this was meant to be.

The depth provided to other working-class characters was welcome. Having included Falstaff in the opening scenes, the news of Falstaff’s death had greater impact, and Johns was particularly outstanding as Mistress Quickly as she spoke an elegy for Falstaff, tears rolling down her cheeks, before she then had to part with her husband and friends as they left for war. Wong’s Boy was a voice of vulnerability throughout, the role ghosted with her other role as the Chorus, giving the Boy’s perspective a particular privilege. Williams (Johns again) was feisty and aggressive in defence of his ideals. The overwhelming picture was one of complex inner lives that resisted being made abject. Everyone on this battlefield had their own sense of identity, their own needs, their own lives. And it was these lives that could be discarded in a moment’s joyful laughter by their King as merely five-and-twenty.

Harington’s pre-show interview referenced the war in Ukraine, and how the development of that war alongside this production cast their choices in a more urgent light. While this risks buying into the frustrating elision of other recent and ongoing wars as part of a Northern hemisphere exceptionalism, this Henry V did seem to capture something of the distinctive mood of the current conflict, in its depiction of war as cynical, a strategy pursued by leaders seeking to consolidate their own authorities, and in which transparent lies are parroted shamelessly in defiance of the recorded testimony of those suffering the consequences. This was certainly an anti-war production, but was also anti-honour, rightly sceptical of the rhetorical wars of words that co-opt violence, destruction, and criminal acts into adulation of ‘heroic’ leaders. As such, it might be the Henry V we need now.

Posted in Theatre review