Henry V (Barbican Centre)
Alex Hassell returns as the newly crowned Henry V in the final part of the tetralogy
The opening of the RSC's new Henry V on Remembrance Day gave a special piquancy to the moment when the numbers of the dead are totted up after the battle of Agincourt. Alex Hassell's victorious, begrimed and bloody monarch salutes the French nobles in their "royal fellowship of death" and the company launches into a powerful and moving chorale, "Non nobis domine."
And this is preceded by a hushed sense of disbelief at how few English have fallen, a miracle of some patriotic embarrassment in this six hundredth anniversary year of the battle. But the French come out of Gregory Doran's production, first seen at Stratford-upon-Avon just two months ago, quite well; the King and Queen of France (Simon Thorpe and the huskily intoned Jane Lapotaire) are a dignified couple and Robert Gilbert's Dauphin a less laughable nincompoop than usual, though his equine mania is played up with sexual crudity as he perches on a mini-warhorse.
As at Stratford, though, I find Hassell's hunky Henry, like his Prince Hal, a mixed blessing. He's good in repose, and the wooing of Jennifer Kirby's delightful Princess Katherine in the fail-safe scene at the end is cute and touching. But his lack of vocal richness and variety ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends" is more of a squeak than a trumpet), and his stumpy, stiff movement and gesture gives him a puppet-like absurdity.
The tone of his performance, which is primarily peevish, is set when he rushes on from the wings to snatch his own crown from Oliver Ford Davies's schoolmasterly Chorus. He's not so much a hero as a spoilt brat, and although this squares with his own square jaw, it doesn't fit the callous opportunist who finds an excuse for war-mongering in the "dodgy dossier" of the Salic law expounded by the clergy.
Mind you, this play always surprises in its shifts of tone and emphasis: the great death of Falstaff speech by Sarah Parks's blowsy Mistress Quickly before the embarkation at Southampton; the condemnation of the traitorous lords; the "touch of Harry in the night" as he moves among his men and defines, impressively, their duty to the king, their souls their own. But what if the cause of battle is unjust?
Everything that's good about the production is in spite of the RSC mustiness that hangs about. There is also the ingenuity of Stephen Brimson Lewis's projected cathedral vaulted interior, as well as the loudest explosion (this is not a spoiler, it's a warning) I've ever heard at the siege of Harfleur, and the terrific music by Paul Englishby from onstage brass and offstage woodwind.
But some of the small part acting is abominable, though I excuse the vivid Pistol of Anthony Byrne and the superb double of Bardolph and Fluellen by Josh Richards, face like a moon carved from a prize marrow, eyes of coal, voice marinated at the bottom of a port barrel. This play never ceases to improve each time you see it, and is joined in the RSC repertoire in the New Year by its preceding trilogy of Richard II (David Tennant again) and the two parts of Henry IV.
Henry V runs at the Barbican until 30 Dececmber.