If our recent war-mongering time has so far seemed to lack a drama to put the 21st century’s initial conquests into context, leave it to a brilliant director to suggest, in “Henry V,” a thoroughgoing play for today. Watching Nicholas Hytner’s utterly electrifying production of this most slippery of Shakespeare texts, a play that can seem rabble-rousing one minute and fiercely critical of the cost of human combat the next, one feels compelled to rise up in one’s seat rather more swiftly than most of the lager louts whom Henry calls to arms. (Indeed, a reference to the “youth of England on fire” reveals the contrasting sight of Robert Horwell’s glum-faced Nym in a pub, drinking alone.) The first production of Hytner’s fledgling NT regime actually to be directed by the newly arrived a.d., this “Henry V” sets an exhilaratingly high bar that looks both forward and back, honoring the Bardic tradition at an address that, strangely, has never done this play, while minting anew a drama so suggestively steeped in the era of spinmeister Tony Blair and the war in Iraq that you find yourself wishing Shakespeare had been a commentator for CNN.
Such an encomium may hint at some modish, reductionist approach to its source, which is in fact the very opposite of what Hytner has achieved. Seeing the play whole in all its contradictions, a drama that speaks unapologetically of wanting to bash to smithereens “naked infants” even as it ends by courting an understandably reluctant enemy princess, the Frenchwoman Catherine (Felicite du Jeu), Hytner understands the climate that could give rise to a war ostensibly fueled by God (sound familiar?) even as it is micro-managed from the top for a reluctant public at large. The result may not be as moving as the defining Kenneth Branagh-Adrian Noble RSC “Henry V” from two decades ago that marks the other great version of this play in my experience (Branagh was in the NT audience on press night). But it is even sharper and more shocking in the violence it unleashes in a text that can get off on “the royal fellowship of death” accompanying Henry’s (Adrian Lester) recitation of the French losses even as it is unequivocal about the restless doom that must always remain the true legacy of “the sleeping sword of war.”
The opening moments are startling and pave the way for more to come. Entering clipboard in hand is a female Chorus played (splendidly) by Penny Downie with the sweet-faced, firm-voiced determination of the most loyal of personal assistants. This Chorus’ appeals to the imagination — “Work your thoughts, and therein hear a siege,” she urges the aud — could seem absurd in an avowedly modern-day production that brings on stage Land Rovers and men in British army combat gear while folding into the action video footage that grants Henry his own revisionist slant on the rhetoric of battle. But Downie’s touching lack of cynicism tells the NT theatergoer that, for all its TV-age appurtenances, Hytner’s “Henry V” when all is said and done remains a play, and one that, launching as it does the theater’s Travelex £10 season, ought to be seen by the same broad swathe of society that in happier times enjoyed hanging out with Falstaff (Desmond Barrit, seen only via video) over a pint or two at the pub.
Sweeping across a largely bare Olivier stage that, courtesy of designer Tim Hatley (“Humble Boy”), seems intimate and epic at once, the production is rife with delicious detail: the withering glance with which the Duke of Exeter (Peter Blythe), to the English imperial manner born, witheringly lays waste to a French servant bearing tea. Or the shadow-boxing image toward the rear of the stage of an ever-impetuous Dauphin (Adam Levy), as if in comical accord with the Chorus’ description of “the confident, overlusty French.” Mourning the larger-than-life Falstaff, Cecilia Noble’s Hostess — once Mistress Quickly, now the soldier Pistol’s wife — conveys the meaning of loss writ large that comes back to haunt us as Henry orders the slaughter of the French prisoners, an act of savagery that — most tellingly — all but one of the English under Henry’s command refuse to commit.
Where, then, does this leave Henry? Halfway toward becoming Richard III without the hump, a propagandist who has abandoned his Rastafarian roots (seen in flashback footage of Lester’s Henry) in favor of an almost fearful zealotry as he delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech astride his tank. Cast very much against type, the slender, ever-so-slightly androgynous Lester (the very qualities that made him an ideal Hamlet for Peter Brook) gets a similar sort of laugh on the remark, “I’m a Welshman,” to the one another black British actor, Clive Rowe, got when he first appeared as Mr. Snow in Hytner’s 1992 NT “Carousel.” But the chuckles are affectionate, not mean-spirited, as befits a multiracial staging that throws ethnicity, gender and party politics into the sort of dizzying mix one feels Shakespeare would have loved, as a play about the “blast of war” speaks eloquently, and by its close elegiacally, to Britain, Basra and well, well beyond.