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Henry V – Donmar Warehouse

Max Webster’s excellent production leans into the play’s moral complexity, though world events make Henry’s actions seem even less justifiable than usual

Kit Harington in Henry V

Shakespeare’s war drama Henry V has on various occasions been programmed, staged and filmed with a calculated and deliberate geopolitical message. In 1944, late in the Second World War, Laurence Olivier’s patriotism-drenched film version cast Henry as a brilliant military leader enjoying a deserved triumph over the French. That the French had become allies did not stop the sentiment, and the film was even dedicated to British soldiers ‘whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture’. More recently, the National Theatre’s 2003 production was received largely as a strong, satirical critique of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, treating Henry’s invasion as largely unjustifiable, paralleling British and American military action. Yet in this new, just as timely production, the resonances are shockingly coincidental, yet startling to watch.

Max Webster’s stirring staging echoes the combat fatigues and gritty violence of Nicholas Hytner’s Iraq War critique, yet Webster leans far more into the play’s notorious ambiguity, rather than espousing the clearly ‘pacifist leanings’ Michael Billington identified in 2003. This is not to say that Webster presents war as anything less than a nightmarish horror, which is intensified by Fly Davis, Carolyn Downing and Lee Curran’s terrific design (of set, sound and lighting respectively). Yet Webster’s nuance is slightly, and unavoidably, blunted by the shadow of world events which hangs across the play – obvious long before Kit Harington’s curtain call address, in which he notes that Henry V is a play about invasion, before asking the audience to spare some change for the humanitarian relief effort in Ukraine.

Shakespeare’s depiction of the cost and violence of conquest grimly mirrors Russia’s ongoing attempt to invade Ukraine. This run was announced in mid-2021 and the invasion began a fortnight into its run – though the growing prospect of conflict surely hung over the rehearsal period – so its staging is only a tragically apt coincidence. Thus, there are not direct references made in the play itself. Instead, this already electric staging flickers with a palpable unease, that while the stage is filled with impressive military choreography (from fight director Kate Waters, movement director Benoit Swan Pouffer, and with additional guidance from former Royal Marine Commando Tom Leigh), this is happening for real elsewhere. This is merely a ‘wooden O’, in which war is simulated.

Millicent Wong is terrific as the Chorus, implicitly justifying the role’s presence in the play. (Such a persistent narrator is unusual for Shakespeare.) Yet the infamous apology for the limitations of the stage that opens Henry V seems less necessary than usual. The production inclines to bombast (incredibly effectively), with guns, military manoeuvres and the ever-present sound of circling helicopters. There is no need of ‘imaginary forces’ – Shakespeare’s pun describing mental faculties and pretend armies – when the production depicts semi-realistic modern warfare before our eyes. And yet, scenes of war are now so present on the news, it also seems obvious to suggest that theatre is inadequate in depicting it.

Norman Rabkin famously compared Henry V to drawing of an animal, variously seen as either a rabbit or a duck. Most people can see both at will, mentally switching between the right-facing rabbit and the left-facing duck. However, no matter how hard you try, you cannot see both at once. In Rabkin’s reading, the character of Henry and the moral justifications for the war are like the rabbit-duck. Henry is either a heroic leader of one of England’s crowning military triumphs, or he is barbarous example of the brutality and folly of war. (As the Chorus reminds us at the play’s conclusion, Agincourt’s gains will be lost under Henry VI.) For Rabkin, this ambiguity is to be relished rather than resolved. ‘Mystery is their mode’, he writes, of Shakespeare’s ‘great plays’; ‘the questions aroused by them seem unanswerable’. Thus, to direct Henry V is to either decide on a reading or attempt to embody this tension – leaving the play functioning as a moral challenge for its audience to decode.

Webster strikingly leans into the latter, though it is even more difficult to harbour sympathy for a violent invader now than usual. In this production, the play seems deliberately structured as a series of moral tests. Is Henry admirably ruthless in his determination or a perpetrator of undue, merciless cruelty? In an attempt to bolster the presentation of Henry as a person in his own right, rather than the politician or war leader he appears as in most versions of the play, Webster lifts from Henry IV Part 2 to craft a new opening sequence, in which he is decadent and wayward figure. The Chorus’s Prologue ends with the onset of pounding music, Henry staggering onstage in a stained office shirt, enjoying Bullingdon Club-esque hedonism, and vomiting in the middle of the stage. It is swiftly cleared up, but the smeary remnants glisten under the lights for the next eighty minutes until the interval. Soon he is thrust into power by the death of his father (Henry IV). Yet though he suits up into a suddenly more respectable, disciplined leader, the loutish behaviour lingers in the mind.

Kit Harington in Henry V

The first true test comes in Act 1 Scene 2 of the original Henry V, beginning a trend in Webster’s drama to retain and spruce up the more intractable monologues, rather than simply cutting them. This does make for a long show (over three hours in all), especially given the addition of the opening, yet Webster’s directorial innovations and interventions are compelling and hugely effective. Here, in one such flourish, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rather turgid explanation of Henry’s claim to the French throne is delivered via PowerPoint presentation. In a neat inversion of the usual audience slump, the characters on stage are visibly bored – yawning, sighing and even swearing when he adds reason after tenuous reason for Henry to stake his claim. Instead, we laugh at the tortuous logic and spider web of a spider web of a family tree, shown in Andrzej Goulding’s superb video projections. That Henry can be convinced by this seems surprising though, and it even grimly evokes Putin’s thin justifications for supposedly ‘liberating’ Ukraine. Henry’s actions are, of course, predicated on an argument about monarchical legitimacy that ignores how the French would self-determine their own nationality.

Henry sits quietly in this scene, epitomising that much-coveted, but nebulous quality of statesmanlike-ness. He has gained authority from his sudden promotion, though perhaps his rigid, silent demeanour is also that of a man still trying to sober up. For all the production’s tendency to overwhelm, Webster plays these subtler moments well; Henry’s power is demonstrated by the simple fact that he is the only one with a chair. After surviving the archbishop’s presentation, Henry is persuaded – calling on ‘God’s help’ to speed their victory, though really it is the vast pledge of church money in support of military action that has tipped the scales for the King. At the end of Act One, Henry is presented with a provocative gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, an insult to Henry’s ‘youth and vanity.’ Yet you feel the ethical cogs whirring in Webster’s drama; they are derogatory, yes, but are they really an acceptable justification for violent incursion? Yet, Harington explodes with rage, and you feel that ‘chid[ing] this Dauphin at his father’s door’ is hugely understating his aims.

The first half proceeds with a measured pace, next testing Henry with the revelation of the Earl of Cambridge’s plot to assassinate him. The dramatic irony hangs thickly in the air as he tricks them into signing their own death warrants. He tells them of a man who, in drunken excess, ‘railed against our person’. Yet he proposes merciful treatment and allows the plotters to argue against leniency. Accomplice Scroop insists ‘Let him be punished, sovereign, lest example / Breed by his sufferance more of such a kind.’ All three betrayers are in agreement; a King must be feared as well as loved, cruel and kind. Thus, Henry presents them with papers, detailing their own treasonous crimes. When they make their inevitable pleas for mercy, Henry simply gestures to their own hypocrisy. Harington plays Henry here as a clever schemer, his lines half-test, half-trick – playing on the public loyalty everyone must show to him in making them argue against clemency. Shakespeare implicitly questions Henry’s actions; are they start of a slippery slope towards the cruel and dictatorial, or the actions of a just King, only hanging them with their own rope?

This question is, horrifyingly posed again before the interval, when Bardolph is hanged for alleged stealing from a church. While Henry is theoretically upholding a moral standard, in staking a dubiously rightful claim without unnecessary violence or larceny, Webster plays the moment as a grimly mechanised public spectacle – displaying Henry’s swollen power for all to see. Henry watches remorselessly as her body twitches above Donmar’s stage, even though Webster’s additions from Henry IV Part 2 show his youthful friendship with Bardolph, suggesting perhaps that they might have been lovers. There is a potent sense, by this point, that Henry might have gone too far – the killing sapping the morale of Henry’s old Eastcheap friends, Pistol and Nym, and even threatening the customary comic subplot’s mirth.

Kit Harington in Henry V

John Sutherland and Cedric Watts famously place Shakespeare’s Henry on trial in Henry V, War Criminal?, ascribing him that anachronistic moniker, though it has an important partial echo in the original text. After Henry has decided to execute the French prisoners of war, Welsh soldier Llewellyn objects as it is ‘expressly against the law of arms’. Webster slightly updates the phrase to the ‘rules of battle’ – a deliberate shift away from codes of chivalry, respect and fairness, towards modern concepts of human rights and conventions of war. This decision to contravene these rules is the clinching piece of evidence for Sutherland and Watts – as it was in a 2010 mock trial Washington, D.C., which included Supreme Courts justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where they unanimously found against Henry in the matter of executing prisoners. It is the darkest moment of moral testing in the play, and Webster makes it look for a brief moment like Henry has caught himself in the midst of his tyrannical violence and might retreat from it. Yet instead, defiant of his soldiers’ reluctance, the king graphically slits the throat of one of the prisoners before restating his order. Webster places blood firmly on Henry’s hands.

Yet even amid this horror, there is the rabbit-duck of admirability in amongst the violence. As much as the throat-slitting is a horrifying signifier of just how far Henry has gone, it also, rather perversely, shows him to be a man who leads from the front. He never expects his soldiers to do something he would not be willing to do himself. Henry even skulks covertly around the camp the night before battle, attempting to boost morale. By contrast, the Dauphin avoids the actual fighting, but is still rewarded. Despite the scepticism towards many of Henry’s actions in Shakespeare’s text, Henry’s victory comes through effort, while the French are far from sympathetic victims.

A crucial point after Henry’s victory is his confrontation with Michael Williams (here, one of many gender-swapped roles, like Bardolph). During his night incognito, Henry ends up embroiled in a rather contrived dispute, which leads to the promise of a delayed ‘box on the ear’, if he were ever to come up to her and say, ‘This is my glove’. Of course, Henry eventually does so, prompting immediate terror from Williams as she realises her jest of a threat is now treasonous. Yet Henry pardons the soldier, despite an ominous sense that he might turn against his own army into a completely tyrannical autocrat, more in the vein of Richard III. Instead, Harington’s features crease with warmth and he good-humouredly demands that her glove be filled with money. The stage devolves into a wild party, with drinking, dancing and the blasting underscore of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’.

Millicent Wong in Henry V

In Shakespeare’s text, this could be read as a pivotal moment of transformation in Henry – the point at which he looks over the precipice, but without falling (as many others have done in the rise-and-fall de causibus tragic form, found variously in history plays such as Richard II and Richard III). A structural reading would align Henry V’s conclusion with the genre of comedy – ending as it does with the wooing of the King of France’s daughter, Katherine, and the promise of their marriage. Yet, typically, Shakespeare infuses a rich ambiguity in these final scenes, a gift to directors (like Webster) who wish to take a more sinister interpretation.

This production treats the awkwardness of the play’s comic resolution as the last of the play’s moral tests, one which – for me – Henry completely fails. Though attempting to be amorous across the language divide, Harington soon turns off Henry’s charm. He is brokering a military deal, as the victor, and as a result his requests are actually demands suffused with a threat of violence and destruction. There is no way that he could straightforwardly court Katherine’s affection. Anoushka Lucas is a standout as Katherine, playing her with a steely determination and wringing as much pathos as possible from her character’s hopeless situation – despite the limitations of the relatively small role. In this staging, the fairly early play Henry V seems to foreshadow the dark undertones of The Winter’s Tale’s resolution (and those of the other late plays), in which the (seemingly) resurrected Hermione does not directly forgive or even address her husband Leontes, whose groundless accusations of adultery led to her apparent death. Leontes hurries everyone offstage before the potential powder keg of unspoken feelings can detonate – and perhaps lead to further tyrannical violence. As with Henry V, Shakespeare’s language denies us the happiness we might expect from the marriage plot’s structural comedy.

Henry V is the third biggest role in Shakespeare – both by raw line count and percentage of the play’s dialogue (32%) – yet I was struck by how small the role felt here, especially in the first half. Kit Harington is cannily cast; of course, his presence will sell tickets, yet he also exudes a quiet celebrity, which fits this interpretation of Henry as a slick-suited, potentially populist monarch. Though Andzrej Łukowski contends in his Time Out review that this production ‘approach[es the play] as a great character study’, I was left with the quite contrasting sense that the play was asking us to judge – as the public, perhaps even as voters – whether we found the King and his actions justifiable, ethical and moral. The frequent projections of Harington’s face on the back wall serve a powerful sense that he is a national leader whose inner thoughts remain largely inaccessible to us. Henry here almost seems like a new take on the Chorus’ invocation ‘Into a thousand parts divide one man’ – not only an entreaty to imagine the stage much wider in scope, but a comment on Henry’s fractured self. He is many things to many people – more of an idea than a psychological presence, and more of a motivational speaker than a soliloquist. We judge him from a distance, rather than suffer with him – as we might with Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or Prospero.

Kit Harington in Henry V

Much of the production plays like a glossy modern miniseries, combining stylised stage imagery with realistic verisimilitude. The funeral of Henry’s father (Henry IV) is an operatic, epic scene of stately slow-motion, the Donmar’s medium-sized stage filled with black coats and wet umbrellas. Later, Webster chooses to translate the French scenes back into their original language (with surtitles), a cleverly disruptive choice which elevates the French characters from comic ciphers by giving them their own voice. It forces the audience to engage with the words and lean in, rather than let the drama simply wash over them. Yet it also signifies the French characters’ own defined, different culture – equally real on stage, avoiding the sense that the play is being performed as a history told by the English victors. Even the ostensibly comic scenes crackle with a violent danger. The rather unwieldly comedy of the only originally French scene, in which Katherine learns the English words for body parts (‘de fingres’, ‘de hand’, ‘de bilbow’ and so on) is energised by being set to boxing session. Katherine sharpens her defences, physical and linguistic, knowing that she will likely be part of the peace settlement with Henry.

It is a marvel how well the production’s chaotic clash of imagery works. War is rendered as a baroque spectacle, underscored with live choral music from a quartet of actor-musicians, yet it is also hi tech, with sonar pings, helicopter blades and automatic weaponry. As the army goes ‘Once more unto the breach’, the gold back wall of Fly Davis’ set splits apart into four parts, with red lights blazing through the gaps – a vast St George’s Cross, underlining the pungency of nationalism in this Henry V. England are loutish victors, the flag in the set design literally setting alight as the stage fills with a debauched carnival of celebration, giving a new meaning the Chorus’ earlier statement that ‘all the youth of England are on fire’. Now they are on fire with antisocial raving.

Before the play begins, a quotation is projected on the back wall of the stage: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin’s statement chimes with Rabkin’s polysemy, inviting the audience to judge – weighing the evidence, as well as potentially condemning Henry. It is a testament to the intentional ambiguity of Webster’s production, though this neutrality is crushed by the weight of real-world events. Strangely, the actions of Putin make this production seem like a far more definite critique of English nationalism than was perhaps originally intended. For all the play acts as a literary optical illusion, flattering Henry with good qualities of bravery, leadership and determination as well as bad, in Webster’s ambitious take, rhetoric can only distract from Henry’s moral outrages – in no way excusing them.

Henry V

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Max Webster, Design by Fly Davis, Lighting Design by Lee Curran, Sound Design by Carolyn Downing, Video Design by Andrzej Goulding, Movement Direction by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Fight Direction by Kate Waters, Casting by Anna Cooper, Composition by Andrew T Mackay, Starring Kit Harington, Jude Akuwudike, Gethin Alderman, Seumas Begg, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Kate Duchêne, Olivier Huband, David Judge, Melissa Johns, Danny Kirrane, Anoushka Lucas, Adam Maxey, Steven Meo, Joanna Songi, Marienella Phillips, Millicent Wong
Production Photographs by Helen Murray
Reviewed 12th March 2022

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