Four star review of timely new production of Henry V at Leeds Playhouse
Viewed against the backdrop of Brexit, rising far-right nationalism, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the accession of a new monarch to the throne of England, this new staging of Shakespeare’s history play about English identity, war and imperialism couldn’t feel more timely.
It is a stripped back, expertly edited version, a co-production between the Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong and it brings an invigoratingly fresh perspective to the story. While the ambitious young king Harry has often been presented in a heroic light, director Holly Race Roughan’s production emphasises his dark side. And in the titular role Oliver Johnstone gives a suitably chilling performance pointing up his hunger for power, his petulance and his cruelty. This is a complex, changeable Harry – full of self-doubt one moment, bullying his close associates the next.
The decision to include part of Henry IV, Part II with the dying Henry IV’s advice to his son to ‘busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels’ is an excellent one and sets the tone for what is to follow. Desperate to assert his power and show leadership, after receiving a deliberately mocking single tennis ball from the French prince, Henry’s bruised ego leads to a declaration of war with France. He is up for the fight, but what is the cost to those around him? And to the ordinary soldiers on the frontline?
Several familiar themes are cleverly turned on their head – the ‘once more unto the breach’ speech, for example, is delivered by Johnstone as an almost whispered exhortation to himself rather than as a patriotic rallying cry, while the invented, modern-day conclusion is perfectly pitched as Princess Katherine of France, newly engaged to Harry and just arrived upon these shores undergoes an obligatory English citizenship test.
The supremely talented ensemble of nine actors around Johnstone play a variety of roles between them and announce scenes, settings and characters. Like the text, the set design by Moi Tran is pared-down and simple: a burnished mirror back flat, with ladder rungs, is sometimes covered by bright green curtaining (as befits a ‘green and pleasant land’), green chairs are moved around in the playing area and the actors who are not participating in a scene look on. Packing boxes and lighting rigs are visible in the wings. We are left in no doubt that this is theatre.
Pacy, energetic and totally absorbing, it is Shakespeare brilliantly repurposed for our times.