Henry V

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong, with Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe

Listing details and ticket info...

Henry V (Oliver Johnstone) Credit: Johan Persson
Henry V (Oliver Johnstone) Credit: Johan Persson
Oliver Johnstone as Henry V and Joshua Griffin as Henry's brother and Fluellen Credit: Johan Persson

Headlong’s disturbing take on Henry V, directed by Holly Race-Roughan, shines a light on the way weakness and insecurity in a dictator, a King, can generate bullying, murder and sexual abuse. The end section of this production is a real kicker that I would like anyone who is even thinking about Henry V to see.

The key to the character of Henry V is there in the first scene imported from Henry lV Part Two where he has wandered away from the bedside of his dying father with the crown, upsetting his father who warns him that “thou seek'st the greatness that will o'erwhelm thee” and, given the obstacles his son will face, a little later advises him to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” Soon after, the father dies and the son is crying in the arms of a friend.

Compensating his insecurity with a very physical aggressiveness, he makes a point of strangling to death a friend he believes betrayed him, laughs closely into the face of the French emissary (it's a “Ha Ha Ha” in the style of Marlon Brando in Streetcar) waving the tennis ball sent by the Dauphan and repeats the gesture over the body of a prisoner he ordered murdered.

The grand speeches find their way into the performance without a romantic atmosphere. Henry’s rousing words of “once more unto the breech” before the besieged city of Harfleur are spoken by the lone crouched and seemingly cowering figure of Henry, his back pressed against the stained, industrial, metallic mirror backdrop. It is effectively a tortured Hamlet-like introspective. His later “happy few” words are spoken to others, but they are cut short by an interruption.

There is a Brechtian tilt to the presentation with performers dressed in contemporary casual clothes sitting on either side of the stage and an actor announcing each new scene.

There is no shying away from the terrible brutality of war. Henry (given a strong performance by Oliver Johnstone) warns Harfleur that if they don’t surrender then their “shrill-shrieking daughters; would be defiled and your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”

He orders the murder of prisoners and the execution of his former friend Bardolf (Jon Furlong) in a surreal scene in which the soldiers do a folk dance around the hanging body.

As the names of the dead French are read out, he and his close supporters ecstatically cheer like a mob of politically far-right racists. At one point as if to underscore the horrific consequences of what is being created, Henry lies on the ground humming the iconic song "Jerusalem" gesturing to the new world being built. "God Save the King" is sung several times, each time becoming slower and more unsettling.

One of the victims of this bleak new world is Katherine (Josephine Callies), the daughter of the King of France, chosen by Henry to be a wife that consolidates his claim to rule France. He tells her she “must therefore needs prove a good soldier-breeder”.

She cannot understand most of the English spoken and has no choice in the matter. Twice, he touches her without her agreement and grabbing her head twists it so he can kiss it. The woman with them looks away towards the audience, her face an expression of heartbreaking sadness. Recognising Katherine’s reluctance, he tells her father “to teach your daughter to consent.” This is the reality of war where women become abused trophies.

In the final scene, as a cleaner vacuums the floor, a contemporary immigration official asks Katherine questions necessary for her to stay in England which, according to this official, supposedly opposes sex trafficking, slavery, extremism and intolerance along with supporting democracy. What a surprise all that would have been to Henry V and many of those reflecting on the history of this country.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna