Henry V review - November 2013
Once more unto the breach for the thrilling finale of the Michael Grandage Season
The final production in the inaugural season by the Michael Grandage Company may well prove to be the most popular, thanks in the main to the casting of Hollywood favourite Jude Law as Henry V. In many ways Grandage has left the heaviest text of his season to the very end, although some careful editing and a speedy pace make sure it's as accessible as a Shakespeare history play can be.
Whilst the production feels tight and slick, even for an early preview, there are times when individual scenes need a little more breathing space. Christopher Oram's set design feels slightly 'off the rack', but serves its function of allowing a simple multi-functional playing space. Just as the Chorus encourages the audience in the Prologue to use their imagination, it is left to the audience to make the swift transitions between battle field to English castle in the blink of an eye. Neil Austin's lighting design is particularly effective and he achieves the differences in location spectacularly, the most effective transition being the shift to the palace in Rouen, where Katherine (a captivating Jessie Buckley) is struggling to learn English. Her presence is refreshing in a play otherwise dominated by male characters, and she brings some much needed humour to proceedings.
Grandage directs once again with a careful understanding of the text and sensitive staging, that never feels overblown or overacted. He is skilled at balancing a scene so carefully between stillness and action without it ever growing stale - something that so many directors fail to do. He is a director that lets his actors and source material do the work, and this entire season has proven what a unique talent he is.
The battle scenes are handled efficiently, playing into the convention set up by Ashley Zhangazha's dual function of Chorus/boy. Dressed in modern clothing, Grandage sees the production through his eyes, framing the narrative, and he is even seen reading a copy of the text during the interval. It's a small move that works, adding great poignancy to the ending and the heritage Shakespeare leaves us with at the end of this tetralogy. It's refreshing to see a young face on stage, and Zhangazha handles the text with confidence and careful energy that makes him become a highlight of the production.
With celebrity Shakespeare productions becoming somewhat standard, it is refreshing to see Jude Law give a considered delivery of the text. He brings a sense of understanding to the character and you thoroughly believe he understands each word. Whilst he doesn't have the presence of many great Henry's before him, he is more compelling and sympathetic rather than rousing and inspirational, and he is in his element throughout the final act when he attempts to woo Katherine. It is within this scene that he really begins to shine, and you see Jude Law do what Jude Law does best - seduce a beautiful woman.
Henry V is a play that continues to speak to a modern audience. Its overall importance within Shakespeare's canon can be justified by both its continuation of the histories as well as by the death of Falstaff , but the issues it raises continue to extend far past the walls of the theatre. Grandage judges the shift in tone from the pre-war St Crispin's Day Speech to the aftermath and numerical breakdown of casualties effectively, and Law responds to this, finding the heart of the play.
Whilst this is a thrilling end to what has certainly been an incredible season at the Noel Coward, I'm not sure it will be one of those Shakespeare productions that stays with me for life, but it is certainly one that will please both Shakespeare and 'The Holiday' fans.