Sometimes, the middle-of-the-road productions are the most difficult to criticise. Robert Hastie’s Henry V, now playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with Michelle Terry in the lead role, invokes discussion of Brexit and Chilcot both in production and press material. A play which can be deployed as a weapon to mythologise or lambast ideas of war and conquest, the decision to perform Henry V at such a crucial junction in the nation’s political history is undeniably a deliberate one. Yet by the end of the performance we’re left wondering: what exactly was the point?
The production in and of itself is sharp enough. Sprightly, robust and delightfully theatrical, the chaos of war is captured through throbbing drum beats, fierce military marches and smoke-smothered battle scrums. It’s all beautifully choreographed and particularly in the second half, lit by the setting sun, there’s a beauty to the carnage that threatens to take the breath away. The Shakespearean lust for bawdy humour is explicitly exploited, without sacrificing the weight of Henry’s decision to wade into battle with the French.
The performances are strong all round, but Henry V is all about the man himself, or in this case the woman, Michelle Terry. Terry’s performance is a powerhouse. She seems born to speak in verse, and her Henry, equal parts wild-eyed warrior and oily political monarch, is a joy to watch. Charlotte Cornwell’s chorus warmly and wearily guides us through the proceedings, like a once-passionate history teacher with early retirement in her sights. There are a collection of other turns worth a mention: Ben Wiggins’ Princess Katherine is just RuPaul enough to navigate both laughs and anguish, Philip Arditti’s Pistol is as patriotic and foolhardy as any Brexit supporter and Catrin Aaron’s Fluellen balances out Terry’s Henry with grace, but a production is more than performances and a pretty stage.
With the EU Referendum hanging in the air as palpable as the oncoming thunderstorm and the Chilcot report promising to shed light on the reasons why men lead us blindly into wasteful wars, Henry V was in the perfect position to make a brutal point about the state of the nation today. Over and over the play alludes to poignant realities: Williams’ acknowledgement of the consequences of entering into a frivolous war, Henry’s impulsive, self-interested justifications for the conflict as well as the moving and spirited St Crispin’s Day speech (addressed, one notes, to the audience directly), these all feel like dominos propped up to make a crucial and devastating point about War – a point that never seems to come to fruition. Harry’s bloodthirst sees him through to victory and director Hastie deflects the opportunity to wrench any depth from the timely material Shakespeare’s play has offered him. There is no whiff of Blair or Boris about this supposedly politically alert production.
Socially, Henry V finds itself a lot more woke. Though genderblind Shakespeare appears to be in vogue, the play’s thoughtful casting is far from visually impaired. Almost all of the high ranking military officers in Henry’s guard are played by women, and Ben Wiggin’s poise elevates his Katherine to something beyond the comic – the power play between him and Terry in the play’s final scenes challenges preconceptions of gender with more subtlety and intelligence than any production I can bring to mind. Cromwell’s act of handing down the crown to Terry in the play’s first scene speaks volumes about responsibility, power and democracy – her Henry is a leader plucked from the crowd and thrust into the limelight of greatness and expectation. We feel her unfurl her wings and grow into the kind of leader that an empire seems to demand.
For all its spectacle and promise, Henry V is lacking in the final crushing blow. The play is dragged out from the cellar, dusted off and given a shiny new set of khakis and a rifle, but never truly makes the transition into modern political relevance.
Henry V is on until 5th July 2016. Click here for more information.