Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Jude Law is an inspirational Henry V. Michael Grandage knows the actor’s potential well and in this closing production of the director’s innovative West End season, Law represents a glimpse of what can be the finest of British stagecraft.
Shakespeare’s Chorus (a youthfully rucksacked Ashley Zhangazha) famously asks in his prologue “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” and in truth, the answer is “No”. Christopher Oram’s design seeks to replicate a timbered arena, but whilst his endeavours are noble, to modern audiences accustomed to savouring their Shakespeare on the vast and visually accessible expanses of the subsidised Olivier and Royal Shakespeare stages, the confines of the Noel Coward and its antiquated Edwardian sightlines, present a hurdle from the outset. Law is unquestionably fabulous and his performance hints at greatness, but this Henry V is a Rolls Royce engine performing inside a far less glamorous arena.
The play of course is a clever study in leadership, both political and on the battlefield. Henry is a brilliant reader of men and when in Act Two Cambridge, Masham and Northumberland's treachery is found out and they are challenged by the king, it is thrilling theatre. Law's monarch displays righteous menace through a combination of cool understatement and steely determination and we sense the traitors' terror. Law's St Crispin Day speech too is another humbling and inspiring treatment of some of the Bard’s most beautiful verse. When he speaks to his band of brothers, the sincerity is unquestionable. Ever the consummate actor, Law saves the best until last. The courtship scene with Jessie Buckley's Katherine is simply a masterclass in Shakespearean cool. An actor who not so long ago was the country’s alpha-male (and to many, still is), Law woos the M'lle with wit, charm and passion. It is rare for a Shakespearean role to lend itself to a swooning audience, but one senses that there will be swoons aplenty throughout this run.
The company work could be tighter. Seen some days after the first press night and whilst Norman Bowman and Ron Cook as Nym and Pistol respectively provide a wonderfully authentic grit to their more humble but critical characters, veteran kiwi James Laurenson should know better than to race through Exeter's text. Grandage would do well to keep a regular eye on maintaining the original tightness of his work.
Law’s name alone will ensure that the production sells well and he justifies the face value ticket price (though no more). Amidst a production that occasionally falters, he shines and gives a very modern Henry to a classic history.
Runs until 15th February 2014