It has been a long time since I have been to the theatre live, and the National Theatre Live cinema showing of staged performances are a relatively easy and accessible variant, and last night’s offering of Henry V was visually impressive but ultimately a little confused.
The evening began with an interview with Kit Harington as himself, explaining the appeal to him of the role of Henry. He is oddly reticent in interview – somehow rather diffident when not masked by character – and made it clear that he had no desire to present Henry wielding a sword, having been-there-done-that as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, a series that is itself heavily based on the Wars of the Roses. He also told us that he had no interest in portraying Henry as a patriotic hero and this production makes no attempt to: Harington’s first entrance has him throwing up on the stage, snorting coke and dancing rather lamely in a low class bar.
Because the NT has assumed that we are not coming to Henry V with prior knowledge and familiarity, we are given a refresher with some scenes from Henry IV Part 2 – Falstaff and Pistol, Mistress Quickly and Nym and Bardolph carousing with Hal until we learn that his father the King has died and the new King Henry V rejects his erstwhile companions. Long live the King, right?
The Henry IV plays are among my favourites in Shakespeare’s canon, and it is a strange concept that people might come to this performance without that background. These commoners are in many ways the heart of this production: once Hal is ensconced in London on the throne, the nobility supporting him become almost indistinguishable one from the other, in matching grey suits and corporate political anonymity. They are the cabinet behind the prime minister, and that decision works well in the modern audience, where the true source of power is rather opaque – especially in the lengthy exposition of the Archbishops’ justification for the war, an exposition that bores both Henry and his court alike and may as well be labelled as a “dodgy dossier”.
The production design by Fly Davis’ backdrop acts here as a PowerPoint Presentation of Sallic Law and the bar on inheritance through the female line and is a delicious small piece of parody of modern corporate world. From there, Henry’s right to the French throne is established, the French Ambassador delivers his tennis balls and we embark on a military training montage which seems like something out of Mulan!
And this army then heads out to the famous scenes in Harfleur and Agincourt, leading on to Henry’s ultimate triumph over the vastly superior French numbers.
Harington, for me, failed to get Henry. He seems to have decided to make him problematic and a war criminal – and the production really emphasises the horror of Henry’s threats at Harfleur, his execution of the prisoners of war at Agincourt and the non-consensual kiss with Katherine in Act 5, both of which are canon and in the play – without really exploring why Henry is problematic. And I think that is seeing Henry as a dichotomy between either hero or villain, the production missed the most vital thing that Henry is: ironically, he is an actor! Hal is a performance; King Henry is a performance; the manipulator who persuades traitors to rail against mercy is a performance; the bombastic “Once more into the breach…” is a performance; the Harfleur threats are a performance; Henry’s pre-battle slinking through the camp is, guess what, a performance.
Within these layers, the single soliloquy Henry has, the one sole speech in which there is no audience for whom he has to perform, is crucial but Harington delivers it with the same slightly contained, slightly flat delivery that he used throughout. And to decry the accoutrements of regal “ceremony” whilst dressed in modern military fatigues lacked… something concrete.
There were some standout moments, most of which focussed on the Falstaff crew: Melissa Johns’ Mistress Quickly’s wail and cry as Pistol, Nym and Bardolph are taken to France was heart wrenching, and the last we see of her character, to be dismissed as dying of the French condition in Act V; similarly, Henry’s standing witness to the execution of Bardolph at the end of the first half was deeply moving – and their death was brutally depicted! – and the production gave us just enough of Falstaff’s gang to make it meaningful. Falstaff’s own off-stage death, however, lacked the punch it deserved: having already presented him on stage in the shape of Steven Meo, it made the invisibility of his death… odd.
What was also rather off-putting was the almost relentless pressure to make the production “relevant” to a modern audience. The gender-swapping of some of the roles – something which can enliven a play – here detracted: Katie Duchene’s Exeter’s account of York and Suffolk’s deaths which is deeply touching suddenly and inadvertently slid into comedy as she laments that
The pretty and sweet manner of it forc’d Those waters from me which I would have stopp’d, But I had not so much of man in me, And all my mother came into mine eyes And gave me up to tears.
Katherine’s contained and impotent fury at the arranged marriage to Henry and its implications was powerfully performed, but its echoes of and reference to the #metoo movement felt forced. Further, the emphasis on racial integration in Britain, with some rather heavy didacticism between the different voices of the component countries of the UK, was a little overblown. This culminated in Millicent Wong’s Chorus slipping into Mandarin at moments, and her alteration of the epilogue reminding us that Henry would be succeeded by his infant son, Henry VI,
Whose state so many had the managing That they lost France and made his England bleed... His England ... my England ... our England
was pointed to the point of being overwrought.
It was, perhaps, a case of less is more.