Arguably the most macho of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is a bold choice for gender-blind casting. Actually, it’s less blind here than walked into with eyes wide open. This modern-day production begins with the cast milling in mufti; the chorus, played by a down-to-earth Charlotte Cornwell, holds a crown and toys with who to give it to. A hot young actor, kneeling and expectant, is nimbly dodged in favour of Michelle Terry.
Director Robert Hastie‘s opening may trumpet its own right-on-ness – but it’s also a casting choice that pays real dividends in this otherwise solid but unspectacular show.
Terry’s Harry is neither the noble patriotic hero nor vicious war-monger. She’s troubled and uncertain, the decision to go to war weighing on her narrow shoulders. And physically, Terry does simply look so small and squishable compared to the blokes in suits and army gear who advise her. This is in the acting, not just the gender; there’s little swagger or chest-thumping to her Henry.
The big speeches aren’t that big (even with the theatre’s patchy amplification), and this isn’t a Henry V to stir up much emotional fervour. And yet… there’s something very refreshing about Terry not doing the whole puffed-chest, declamatory rhetoric. Hastie’s decision to swerve bombast would only work with an actress as accomplished as Terry, mind: she can rattle through the famous speeches at staggering speed, or play them trippingly, and they still come through crisp and potent.
And it is actually the bolder decision, to have a woman play Henry V in an interpretation that is in some ways more typically ‘feminine’: less cock-strutting and rabble-rousing, more vulnerable and reflective. You become aware of the narrow, limited range of physical and verbal poses we recognise as representing ‘strength’ and ‘leadership’ – strapping manliness, testosterone-fuelled thundering. Terry might not appear at first a "warlike Harry", but she proves that true power can come in a different cut.
For this is no weak or wimpy king: flashes of anger at slights from the French are met with pure, glinting steel. She’s unsentimental, brusquely ordering the slaughter of prisoners, terse and business-like when wooing Princess Katherine. She knows how to take control.
The gender-swapping extends to her betrothed. We first see Ben Wiggins, as Katherine, learning English while fencing. It’s a smart little directorial decision – here’s violence, but prettified and tidied up. The neat rhythm also adds zest to what can be a not-that-funny extended joke in French about rude words. Wiggins’ sulky, pouty turn at the end of the play in a skirt and heels feels more obviously like camped-up drag however, which is a shame given how subtly fluid many of the other cross-cast characters are.
Hastie’s production of a play about countries dividing and uniting feels timely, opening on the eve of the EU referendum. The petty political point-scoring by the French feels like it could have come straight out of the Leave campaign (although the acting is a bit over-egged).
The staging is simple: seemingly just a bare metal grid underpinning a bald, bold open space. This works well for battles, gunfights evoked with smoke, lighting and pounding drums. But the slow-mo movement, while initially effective, overstays its welcome, and the stage turning briefly into a paddling pool seems needless.
The empty staging is less forgiving, however, in the bawdier comedy scenes with Pistol, Nym et al. The energy dissipates in the open air, and very little humour lands. Likewise, moments that could pack emotional clout – such as the death of Bardolph – have a tendency to evaporate rather than devastate.
An interesting, fresh Henry V, then, rather than a heart-squeezingly moving one – but worth catching for Terry’s Harry.
Henry V is at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 9 July.