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Review: HENRY V, Donmar Warehouse

Kit Harington stars as Shakespeare’s famous warrior king

Review: HENRY V, Donmar Warehouse

Review: HENRY V, Donmar Warehouse What a time to be opening a play about war, nationalism, and power. Max Webster's new production of Henry V is now running at The Donmar Warehouse, and offers us a ringside seat to the harsh realities of warfare, both medieval and modern.

To begin with, the Prince is in full 'Hal' mode, drinking and dancing with his Cheapside friends until some news arrives that sobers him up: his father has died, meaning that he is now the King. From then on, Hal is no more as he undergoes a complete transformation; suddenly he's the monarch no one ever expected him to be. One of Henry's early targets is to regain some land in France - as well as push his claim to that throne - and, when the Dauphin sends him a mocking gift of a box of tennis balls, his mind is made up.

The army gains ground, eventually seizing Harfleur, but this has come at a great cost. Depleted, tired, and scared, the remaining soldiers face a final battle at Agincourt. Can Henry's late-night wanderings around the camp boost their morale? Or is defeat inevitable?

With its stirring speeches and the typically over-patriotic takes, you would be forgiven for thinking that the play glorifies war. As ever with Shakespeare, it's all about the way you present it. This production certainly doesn't glorify it; when the battle is finally won, it's only Henry who instinctively reacts with elation - for everyone else it's sheer relief. This shows the gulf between what he stands to gain, and his subjects merely doing their duty.

The cost of war, be it on a personal or moral level, is also clearly shown - possibly the most haunting example is the fate of Bardolph, paying the ultimate price for resorting to old ways on the battlefield. Bringing Tom Leigh onto the creative team as Military Consultant definitely makes you think you're watching soldiers, from the way the actors carry themselves to the precision in all of the military moves.

Whenever speaking to one another, the French characters converse in French rather than English, with captions appearing above the stage; this really makes it feel more authentic, and gives credence to Katherine's scenes - emphasising the language barrier ever further. Anoushka Lucas is excellent as the French princess; her English lesson taking place during boxing practice adds a metaphorical punch as well as several literal ones, and her displeasure at being used as a bargaining chip is clear for all to see.

It's not all blood and powerplays, however. Danny Kirrane provides some comic relief as Pistol, whose antics suggest he is Falstaff's natural heir. Millicent Wong doubles as the Chorus and Boy ("Girl!"); this choice of characters to pair up reinforces each one's outsider status - in fact, some things are even let slip in Boy's mother tongue at times of great distress. Wong effortlessly steers the company through the story with a wry smile.

The inclusion of a quartet of classical singers within the cast brings a cinematic quality to what is already something of a spectacle, as their haunting music soundtracks certain scenes and heightens emotions.

Whilst it certainly seems as though there has been a complete transformation from Hal to Henry (party boy to pious, virtuous king), a dark edge occasionally bleeds through - both within the text and through some nuanced choices from Kit Harington. Henry's anger gets the better of him when the French kill the young boys, but his decision to execute the French prisoners in retaliation feels cold and vindictive, and in direct contrast to what his officers advise him to do.

More chilling is the wooing scene at the end of the play. To begin with it's all very rom-com, as tends to happen, with the King as bumbling-yet-charming dream spouse, but as soon as he gets tired of offering Katherine the pretence of choice it's like a switch has been flicked. From then on the tone of his voice reminds her that she is essentially his property, and that he's been humouring her all along - Harington's charm turns to roughness, and his eyes lose all warmth.

On top of all that, Harington appears to be a natural when it comes to handling Shakespeare's verse: the St Crispin's Day speech is easily one of the highlights of the evening.

Just as Sir Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation came to embody the intersection of this play and the Second World War, current events in Ukraine force the audience to look at the play anew and perhaps ask more questions of it than they ordinarily would. A fine production from Max Webster that is worth every minute of its three-hour running time.

Henry V is at The Donmar Warehouse until 9 April

Picture credit: Helen Murray

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin