Danny Kirrane in Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Murray
A shaky prologue delivered by a miscast Millicent Wong gives way to a full-throttle party scene, where we glimpse the wayward Henry in his Prince Hal days, vomiting outside a club and losing himself in a crowd moshing to Sweet Caroline.
It’s not long before news arrives of the death of his father, King Henry IV, and young Henry must put his revelling days behind him to take up his position as figurehead of the country. But why stop at one kingdom when you could rule two? In an act of macho showmanship, the new king pursues a tenuous claim to the French throne, leading his army into battle at Agincourt and achieving victory over the French against the odds.
Kit Harington in Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Murray
It’s a tense and at times atrocious story, peppered with weighty subplots, but neither Webster nor his cast quite lift its essence from page to stage. Harington portrays the king as stiff and anxious, delivering a muted performance that may work on screen but fails to commandeer the stage. And he’s not the only player in this gender-blind cast who is flat and unconvincing.
Fortunately, several performances pierce through the gloop: Kate Duchêne as a bullish Exeter has us sitting to attention, and Danny Kirrane as Pistol in the nightmarish leek scene earns our horror and sympathy. Anoushka Lucas as the war prize bride Katherine undergoes a transformation before our eyes, her weary bitterness dissolving into curious sort of attraction to the king.
As to the decision for large swathes of the play to be delivered in French, while it certainly lends a voice to the oppressed and makes the troublesome story of colonialism less ‘little England’, it interrupts the lyrical flow of the Bard’s text and requires non-French speakers to crane their necks to read subtitles on awkwardly positioned screens.
Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Murray
It’s the unscripted fragments of the play that work best in Webster’s production. Moments of sobriety – Henry IV’s funeral and a handful of battle scenes – are accompanied by the cast singing moving choral harmonies. Movement director Benoit Swan Pouffer’s decision to choreograph the British army training for battle as an interpretive dance is equally powerful.
And thank goodness for the special effects team, who overdo it with flashes and bangs, but without whose handiwork this Henry V would be deadly dull. Andrzej Goulding’s video design is especially effective, projecting pellets of rain on the back wall of Davis’s brassy stage to conjure a storm, and later, designing a family tree to humour Canterbury’s long-winded speech explaining Henry’s right to the French throne.
These theatrics aren’t enough to save the show alone, though. This Henry V prizes style over substance.
|What||Henry V, Donmar Warehouse review|
|Where||Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, WC2H 9LX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
12 Feb 22 – 09 Apr 22, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £45|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|