Kit Harington as Henry V is no typical heroic figure in the Donmar’s impressive modern-dress production. We should have guessed as much when projected onto the back wall of the set prior to the performance were the words of Walter Benjamin who wrote, “there is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.”
This is a production that not only gives us the grand speeches of for instance Henry urging on his “band of brothers” outside the gates of Harfleur but also lets us glimpse the horror of war crimes, the threat of rape and the post-traumatic stress of soldiers that come with the so-called victories.
In a brief sequence from two earlier plays that open this performance, we meet Harry (Kit Harington) before he becomes King Henry stumbling onto the stage where he vomits. Other people are dancing and singing Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline". In a scene from Henry IV Part 1, we see Falstaff asking Harry if there will still be gallows in England when he is King and a scene from Part 2 in which Harry, in the process of being crowned King, says to his old friend, “I do not recognise you old man”.
Things get worse for his former friends. While King Henry is stealing the whole of France, Bardolph is caught taking a small ornament for which Henry has him hanged. His body is shown convulsing in the air at the end of a rope.
Henry is as ruthless with unarmed prisoners, whom he orders to be killed. When his soldiers seem hesitant to slit their throats, he grabs a prisoner to demonstrate how it's done. One soldier says to another that it is surely against the rules of war.
In response to the report from the French that he is victorious at Agincourt, he laughs and jokes with another soldier at what they have achieved whilst alongside them there is a weary sadness in the eyes and posture of two other English soldiers.
Amidst the singing and dancing of the victory party that follows, the soldiers treat each other with an edgy roughness that seems to speak of trauma unresolved. In a very moving scene, one soldier considers killing himself.
There are numerous moments in this production that linger in the memory. Among them must surely be Henry’s meeting with his trophy of war, Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Now the confident victor who dominates events, he tells her that “I love France so well… I will have it all mine”, but there is a troubling point in the encounter that reminds us that what he is doing with Katherine is not consensual.
But then very little if anything Henry does is consensual. He is no hero, merely another monster who, like Putin and Blair, killed vast numbers of people. Henry V as stunningly directed by Max Webster gives us the complexity of Shakespeare’s story that is usually missing from the production of this play. I’m certain to watch it again when it is shown as part of National Theatre Live.
Note: this review was written after seeing a preview performance as a result of a COVID cancellation of a number of shows.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna