“I speak to thee plain soldier. If thou canst love me for this, take me!” No wonder Jessie Buckley’s grave, beautifully controlled Princess Katherine reacts like a rabbit trapped in the headlights: Jude Law’s avowal of love is so direct, so immediate, that his clarity of purpose verges on the shocking. And this in a scene usually played for (minimal) laughs. Law’s soldierly yet touching handling of King Henry’s wooing makes complete sense within the scene and crowns Michael Grandage’s winning interpretation of the famously patriotic “Henry V.”
Shakespeare’s study of leadership during a time of war was made into an Oscar-winning film directed by and starring Laurence Olivier during, appropriately, World War Two. Half a century later Kenneth Branagh made his movie debut repeating that double-duty. But although there have been notable productions in living memory at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, there’s a reason the last commercial West End production anyone can find was as far back as 1938.
Despite its retelling of an unexpected David-and-Goliath-scale victory against the French complete with celebrated rallying cries (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”), the play’s extended arguments about the (il)legality of war and a king’s relationship to his people can make it seriously intractable.
Instead of either disguising the difficulties or updating the action for easy legibility, Grandage faces it head on. Mirroring his career-high presentation of “King Lear” which played the Donmar and Gotham’s Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, he and his unified production team take the almost radical approach of sticking to the play’s 15th century setting, but without all the usual accoutrements. Adhering to the opening directive: “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth,” designer Christopher Oram focuses not on display but on audiences’ imagination.
All flummery is stripped away. His monumental set is simply a curved back wall of doors on a bare, raked stage. The aged timber splattered with white plaster echoes the line “this wooden O” (a reference to the Globe theater) and, crucially, soaks up light. This provides a stage-wide canvas for lighting designer Neil Austin who produces his most exciting work since his Tony-winning design for Grandage’s “Red.” On this standing set, Austin’s shifting intensities and walls of light create thrillingly contrasted moods and locations that, crucially, allows audiences to focus completely on the actors.
Law’s Hamlet (seen on Broadway in 2009) showed an actor with commanding stage presence. Coupling that to his star status gives him welcome ease in portraying a young king to whom all others must defer. Even when attentive to the lengthy legal defense of foreign invasion by patient Michael Hadley as Archbishop of Canterbury, Law suggests a man of action. His swift dispatch of plotting noblemen comes with a sharp-edged pragmatism and his effortlessly full-blooded military command rightly dominates a play about a man who galvanizes his troops and his country.
Shakespeare gives few other characters much development but cast members seize their moments without unbalancing the whole. Caught in half-light, Noma Dumezweni’s calmly caring Mistress Quickly finds infinite pathos is a tiny wave of farewell while Ron Cook’s cock-of-the-walk Pistol adds gloriously self-aggrandizing (and much-needed) humor. As zealous Welshman Fluellen, Matt Ryan takes a usually one-note role of long-windedness and gives it range and depth.
The only major textual alteration Grandage makes is the smart decision to add the role of the boy to that of the Chorus, thus giving the dynamic Ashley Zhangazha a strong through-line as both energized narrator and participant.
Even with Grandage’s clear concentration on connecting idea, action and audience, the first half remains tethered to the play’s lengthy introduction and exposition. The dividends of that clarity, however, are everywhere apparent in the more active second half. The result is a production that in every way provides a climax to Grandage’s groundbreaking, fifteen-month, five-play West End season. Its high-wattage stars and production values with low ticket-prices have proved not only that seriousness of purpose need not result in earnestness, but that it can also be hugely popular.