”Henry V” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe – review

Oliver Johnstone in Henry V
Oliver Johnstone in Henry V
© Johan Persson

There’s no “muse of fire” prologue in this boldly political new Henry V, a co-production with Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate. Instead we are plunged into darkness to hear the coughing Henry IV in his death throes at the end of the preceding play, warning his son to keep his hands off the crown (“Thou seek’st the greatness that will overwhelm thee”). It’s just one of several eye-catching changes in Holly Race Roughan’s production, the biggest of which is saved for last.

Ghosts proliferate the action, as Oliver Johnstone’s Henry oscillates wildly between warrior king and tortured soul. In one especially striking moment he throttles the traitorous Lord Scroop (Darmesh Patel) to death with his bare hands, and then sees him in the guise of a succession of messengers (all played by Patel). His inner torment is summarised by his delivery of the ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech, which starts as a Hamlet-esque soliloquy and crescendos into a raucous wrestling match.

The meta-theatricality that’s lost with the excising of the prologue is in some sense restored by the cast reading out scene numbers and character names (“Enter Pistol” etc). And the Brechtian feel is further enhanced by the actors – who are costumed like hipsters, all trainers and beanies – sitting on benches either side of the stage for the opening scenes (it’s reminiscent of the excellent Metamorphoses here last year, which Roughan co-directed).

Contemporary resonances are everywhere, from the football fan-esque singing of “God Save the King” to the production’s emphasis on war crimes committed by an invading force. Henry’s botched seduction of a very young Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies) meanwhile takes on a much darker edge, and the aforementioned ending makes a very on-the-nose comparison between our attitude to foreigners then and now.

The design of Moi Tran sees a bucolic green backcloth pulled back to reveal a coldly industrial wall as the fleet sails to France, while the tension of the invasion is nicely ratcheted up by Max Pappenheim’s music, played by a four-strong band that includes a Swedish nyckelharpa. The candles in the Sam Wanamaker (this is the play’s debut in the space) are subtly complemented by artificial light flooding through a roof hatch. This is a production that seamlessly blends classical and contemporary.

The fine ensemble is particularly impressive with the production’s more physical passages. They shimmy up and down ladders on the back wall and merrily kick seven bells out of each other. Much of this is at the behest of Johnstone’s snarling, psychotic Henry, who goads them on and seems to relish violence (rarely will you see a tennis ball used so menacingly). Other standouts include Eleanor Henderson as a gamut of French characters including Prince Louis, Jon Furlong as the pitiful Bardolph, and Helena Lymbery as the haunting Henry IV.

All told it’s about as far away from the jingoism of the Olivier interpretation as you’ll get. Which chimes with a time when Britain’s view of itself is currently, to put it mildly, in the balance. Although at times it feels the text (dramaturgy is by Cordelia Lynn) has been overly contorted to the vision, there is no doubting its power. Never before have I found the play so discomfiting.

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Henry V

Closed: 04 February 2023