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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


  Alex Hassell and Company/ Ph: Keith Pattison

If there were ever an international theatrical Olympiad, it’s not hard to imagine the UK – or perhaps just England, if we were permitted Home Nations participation – entering Henry V. It has long been a barometer of our national mood: Laurence Olivier was full of patriotic Sturm und Drang in his seminal World War II film, whereas Nicholas Hytner opened his regime at the National Theatre, at the time of the Iraq War, with Adrian Lester being far more equivocal about the justness of his cause. Gregory Doran’s fluid account for the Royal Shakespeare Company, of which he is the artistic director, sees fighting as a necessary evil, to be done with a heavy heart and minimal triumphalism. Yet it is nonetheless something to be carried out crisply and efficiently.

This mixed-bag attitude is cleverly reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stripped-back design and in certain key moments of stage business. The concept is traditional dress with a twist, old-school stick-it-to-the-French jingoism replayed in a minor key. At both the start and the finish, the deep backstage area of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is laid bare, with its generalised scattering of props and clutter. It’s a decisive stripping away of any potential notion of martial pomp and circumstance. Theatre, like war, can be far from pretty behind the scenes.

Alex Hassell, Henry V, has done Doran sterling service of late. He was Hal in Doran’s underpowered Henry IV Parts One and Two last year and also fitted in the role of Biff in his Death of a Salesman in between. At first, it seems worryingly as though Hassell isn’t going to make that leap from troubled son to self-possessed man. His early default stance as a square-jawed, full-frontal Action Man quickly grows wearisome. Yet his performance, and the production as a whole, deepens and strengthens as the heat of battle rages ever nearer. He reveals a vulnerable humanity as he visits his beleaguered troops undercover on the eve of battle and, when the fighting at last ceases, weeps quiet tears of relief as the tuneful ensemble sings a sombre Latin anthem.

Hassell also has great fun in the light-relief wooing scene with French Princess Katherine. As played by Jennifer Kirby, a rising star of the British stage, it looks as though Katherine, pert, witty and emotionally self-aware, will make the perfect consort for this new-style king of reason as well as valour.

There’s strong support from Oliver Ford Davies, idiosyncratic of voice and stately of bearing, as a tweedily modern-dressed Chorus. “Work your thoughts!” he urges the audience members, sluggish of imagination as we unfortunately are. A neat touch at the beginning sees Hassell, partially dressed in costume but with a bottle of mineral water in hand, wander onstage and testily snatch Henry’s royal crown from Chorus. You can put all the modern spin you like on this play, the gesture seems to imply, but it remains at heart a drama about kings and men and battles several centuries ago.


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