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Henry V: reckoning with English imperialism

This review contains spoilers.

Henry V is far from Shakespeare’s best-loved play. Many modern audiences are put off by its blatant macho-militancy, and disappointed by the lack of juicy drama and tragedy that makes Henry’s fellow (and last) Plantagenet, Richard III, so renowned. And yet, in recent years, the Henries have attracted a slate of Hollywood actors, namely Kit Harrington and Timothée Chalamet, and in turn, far wider audiences. This new production of Henry V from Shakespeare’s Globe and performed at Leeds Playhouse, deploys a near gender-balanced cast to highlight the urgent parallels from Henry’s imperialism in the Hundred Years War to the current government’s illiberal and nationalistic agenda.

Against a faux green-screen back-drop and floor (later lifted to reveal a nautical interior) and wielding only one prop (a plain crown), the cast of ten played almost thirty characters. This was without any wardrobe changes, perhaps in order to highlight the acting from voice and movement alone. In a bid to avoid any confusion, stage directions, namely “enter” and then their character’s name are said aloud by each character (along with the act and scene and location). This wasn’t a perfect solution, firstly because the characters rushed through it, seemingly excited to get to the actual dialogue, and secondly because, combined with the overall postmodernist minimalism in stage design, the overall effect came off as tediously avante-garde and, well, stagey.

And yet these cues did give me a chance to follow the plot and ultimately made for a more accessible production, as did the somewhat modernised dramaturgy. I have previously felt like an outside member of an elite club at Shakespeare plays, unaware of jokes being performed until I hear chortling down my row. And while the keenest Shakespeare readers may find these adaptations patronising, I hope this no-preparation-necessary approach means that those less familiar with Shakespeare feel encouraged to see a performance, and know that they can get something out of it, even if the young audience members I overheard frantically swatting up on the events of the Battle of Agincourt felt their hard work went to waste.

The cast wear modern, casual clothes.

The synergy between the late medieval storyline and implications for the modern day is where the production thrives. While Olivier’s portrayal of Henry V (1944), dedicated to the soldiers of the second world war and their ancestors, served to boost morale and jingoistic sentiment, in this version Oliver Johnstone portrays Henry as a war criminal, focusing on his order to kill POWs, and as as a hypocrite, succumbing to the tyranny that he, a self-proclaimed “Christian king” emphatically denies. Johnstone’s acting excels as Henry descends into masochism in the second act, becoming a quasi Patrick Bateman who mocks others' suffering and brutally murders his confidant Scrope (Dharmesh Patel) with his bare hands. This madness was far more effective than the choreographed fight scenes which sadly revealed the tricks of stage combat. Johnstone’s Henry left me yearning for more – these dark moments were brilliant but unfortunately fleeting.

Henry increasingly reveals his more sadistic side.

In his last act on stage, Henry forcibly kisses the young French Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies). The significant age gap and Katherine’s absolute desperation to learn English to please Henry is particularly uncomfortable to watch in the wake of #metoo. The play reaches its political climax in the creatively inserted epilogue, in which Katherine, posing anachronistically as a post-Brexit French immigrant, sits the citizenship test and is grilled on her knowledge of so-called British values, history and culture, namely the One Hundred Years War and the works of William Shakespeare. Director Holly Race Roughan carefully balances satire and irony here. By putting on a Shakespeare production, Roughan inherently celebrates the Bard, though in direct contrast to the endorsement in the citizenship test, she also clearly warns against a face-value reading of national heroes and creates a markedly anti-royal production. Scrope’s painful last breaths eerily echo Henry’s father's on-stage death in the opening scene, suggesting that violence is inherent to patrilineal succession. The chanting of God Save our Gracious King was particularly timely, while the first London production opened just two months after the Queen’s death. Roughan reminds us that as distant as Henry’s imperialist monarchy feels, we are still living within this system. Previous productions have drawn direct comparisons to contemporary warfare, dressing up Henry in modern-day camo. By contrast, Leeds Playhouse was notably lacking in any visual indicators of militancy. The epilogue is a stark reminder that intolerance is not only actioned through battles: policy, while less bombastic, can also be wielded as a weapon of xenophobia.

Henry V continues its run at Leeds Playhouse until 25th February. Under 30s can buy a free membership to claim £5 tickets.

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