Noel Coward Theatre
December 2 2013
The Michael Grandage Company season at the Noël Coward Theatre concludes with Michael Grandage’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V and, really, it reflects the standards, achievements and sense of the entire season: A great play, a real star at the heart of the production, a set design redolent of the Donmar Grandage seasons and some spectacularly awful casting.
But, unlike the recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this production can be counted a real success.
At the heart of it, unsurprisingly, is an agile, virile and quite enchanting performance from Jude Law. Thinner and younger looking than he was in Hamlet, Law is everything you need or want Henry to be: inspiring, unsure, religious, determined, funny and romantic. It will be a very hard heart that does not come close to breaking when Law delivers the wonderful Saint Crispin speech.
Equally, I have never seen the final scene, where Henry seeks the hand of the French Princess, Katherine, work as beautifully, as simply and as sincerely as Law makes it work here. (Jessie Buckley is quite delightful as Katherine).
And the warrior aspect of his character is clearly drawn, especially in the evocative “Once More Unto the Breach” speech but also in the sequences where he travels amongst his men in the night before the Agincourt battle. Law handles the text well; it might not always be mellifluous but it is always comprehensible and evocative.
It helps that the modernist medieval costumes suit Law spectacularly well too – he has no trouble looking the part.
He has truly excellent support from Matt Ryan (a fabulous Fluellen), James Laurenson (the wise old Exeter), Prasanna Puwanarajah (resonant and insightful as Mountjoy) Noma Dumezweni (a wonderfully dry Alice) and Norman Bowman (excellent as Williams).
But it is not all roses.
The opening fifteen minutes are almost incomprehensible: Richard Clifford (Ely) and Michael Hadley (Canterbury) make hard work of the scene setting in Act One, munching their way through the text. Ron Cook throws away Pistol in the kind of way he threw away Sir Toby Belch.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Ashley Zhangazha who was asked to play the Chorus as a kind of modern University student – the directorial conceit does not work, especially when, without costume change, the Chorus becomes the Boy murdered by the French.
Largely, the male French characters are ill-served: Ben Lloyd-Hughes is particularly odd as the Dauphin and Richard Clifford’s Charles is simply bad. There is also quite a bit of very bad crowd acting in some of the war scenes.
Christopher Oram’s set works very well, but there is a real sense that he has not moved on from his time collaborating with Grandage at the Donmar – which is a pity.
This is, however, a good way for Grandage’s season to end – a very fine, utterly accessible and often thrilling production of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known but difficult plays.