The final instalment in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of English kings, Henry V arrives at the Barbican just in time for the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, which saw the young king defeating the French in 1415. Under the title King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Richard II, Henry IV (Part I and II) and now Henry V are a great endeavour that has seen David Tennant and Jasper Britton, among others, on the Barbican’s boards.
This production takes seriously the advice of the Chorus, who at the beginning insists the audience should use their imagination to picture all the events of the story on stage. The set is austere, with just slightly changing backdrops to set every scene, and bugles to mark those changes. This contrasts with the seemingly accurate but still minimalist costumes. However, both sound and lighting design – by Martin Slavin and Tim Mitchell, respectively – are not only important but brilliantly executed. These two aspects set every scene properly, and make up for the lack of more elaborate sets.
The young Hal from Henry IV is now the new king of England. And as in the RSC production of the two-part drama, he is played by Alex Hassell in an energetic performance. He gives the character the necessary youth, although sometimes the delivery might seem a bit flat. His outbursts of rage and indignation are a reflection of his youth and relative inexperience, even though they do not help in portraying charisma or a commanding presence. The choice here – as in the recent Hamlet also at the Barbican – is realism, an emotional approach to the main character in an attempt to humanise it, which works most of the time. The former, however, lacks the emotional depth of the latter, and connecting with its main character is far more challenging.
The comedic element to Henry’s French sojourn is given by Pistol (Antony Byrne), Bardolph (Joshua Richards) and Nym (Christopher Middleton), who have a great chemistry on stage. However, it must be said that the production in itself tilts towards comedy, sometimes resembling a sardonic parody of the described events. This is true for example of Lewis, Dauphin of France (Robert Gilbert), whose almost camp performance and ridiculous wig accentuates the ‘ineptitude’ of the French only too obviously. On the other hand, Jennifer Kirby’s Katherine is excellent, attempting and failing to speak English. Overall, the story is held together by the Chorus (Oliver Ford Davies) who, like a history teacher, tells us and exhorts us to use our minds to imagine ships and armies.
Gregory Doran’s Henry V is an effective production of a play that needs the spectator’s imagination to really take flight, and is therefore in danger of feeling dull. Unsure whether it is a historical drama and a comedy, and also avoiding taking a stance in regards to war, it lacks a more determined direction. It is, overall, a crowd-pleasing production that comes at the right time to mark the centenary of a battle deeply rooted in people’s imagination, however inaccurate these ideas might be.
Henry V is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 24 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website. Photo by Keith Pattison.