Henry V

William Shakespeare
National Theatre (Olivier)
(2003)

In his introduction to his first season as director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner says "we want to give as many people as possible a really good time". Except those who demand their Shakespeare dull and worthy, his first production as a director easily meets this lofty aim.

Like Phyllida Lloyd's recent Duchess of Malfi, the setting has been updated to the current day with very dramatic effect. Hytner's imagination, aided by designer Tim Hatley in minimalist mode, is used to the full. Although inventiveness occasionally gets in the way of plot, this is entirely forgivable when there are so many memorable moments in this production.

The up-to-date references are innumerable with the most memorable being a large television screen that is used both to show the actors like pop stars three times their own size and also to fill in gaps in the plot. It makes the war with the French the kind of visual feast that would appeal to an American television station. The soft rock soundtrack written by Simon Webb can jar but fits in nicely too.

This is enhanced by a strong cast led by one of the best actors around, Adrian Lester. His ability to enunciate Shakespearean verse clearly is second to none but he ensures that there is always a contemporary feel to the language, in keeping with Hytner's basic premise.

The King and his courtiers are much more like a Cabinet or possibly a company's board. When debating with the French, for whom Adam Levy is wittily effective as Dauphin, the sharp-suited King looks nothing so much as a CEO of some mighty corporation debating a takeover of a rival.

Following up this principle, the common soldiers are re-created as louts in a pub with loud tabloid opinions and video scenes of the late Sir John Falstaff (Desmond Barritt). Bardolph, played by David Kennedy, is seen with a bandaged broken nose and England football shirt, and the trip to France could as easily be for the European Cup final as to war.

The brutal battle scenes are amongst the most frightening that this reviewer has witnessed on a stage, despite the fact that not a drop of blood is spilt. Contemporary war is terrifying with the incredible noise and the smoke combined with Mark Henderson's lighting occasionally leaves one wishing to hide beneath the seat in front.

One innovation that Shakespeare cannot have envisaged is the use of two jeeps that drive around the Olivier's massive stage carrying soldiers, including Robert Blythe's very funny Llewellyn. Where the Harfleur speech falls rather flat, the one before the battle of Agincourt, delivered by Adrian Lester from the bonnet of one of the jeeps, is incredibly stirring.

Adrian Lester's performance is memorable and he clearly works very well with Hytner. They have made great efforts to ensure that his body language is as clearly defined as the verbal. Whether in battle, leading his men to war or ineffectually attempting to woo his French Princess Kate (Felicite Du Jeu), he is entirely in control of both his part and his audience.

While it is possible to be critical about some of the more outlandish contemporary references, it is highly likely that this Henry V will live in the memory of those who have seen it for years to come. With its great visual impact, it could also form the basis for a strong rival to Kenneth Branagh's 1989 effort, if any producer chooses to film it.

Hytner should be very proud of his initial directing production in his new role. He can be assured of big audiences both as a result of the excitement of his modern-day Henry V and the generous sponsorship of Travelex. This ensures that the majority of seats in the theatre are being sold for £10 with the remainder still a snip at £25. This can compare with £40 for an equivalent West End seat.

Don't miss it, you will have "a really good time"!

Philip Fisher