There are as many similarities as differences in Hamlet and Henry V, and Jude Law, who played the first role four years ago for director Michael Grandage (a Donmar Warehouse production in the West End) now leads the same director’s new company in the final show of a tumultuous year at the Noël Coward.
He’s a much better Hamlet as Henry V than he was as the moody Dane himself; that performance was angry, husky and compelling, but not all that funny. Hamlet’s wittiness and gallows humour floats that play, while King Henry’s carefully justified war-mongering and transparent humanity drive this one.
Law is particularly good at maintaining this balance between inspirational head of the army and responsible head of state. His “one of the lads” turn, wandering among the men on the eve of Agincourt, comes naturally to him, and he makes a wonderful transition from prose to verse, from disputing with the soldiers (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own”) to his poetic rhetoric on the ties that bind a king.
It’s become such a rich play in our time, Henry V, eclipsing the utilitarian patriotism of Olivier’s great film to embrace our modern sensibilities about going to war, foreign deals and marriages, nationalism within our own Union, the humanising public relations of the monarchy; and Grandage’s expertly edited and briskly played production delivers on all these fronts, and more.
The usual Grandage team of designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin and composer Adam Cork provides a simple but evocative setting in an adaptable stockade (not dissimilar to the one for Derek Jacobi’s King Lear), with a few hanging banners, standard Old Vic costuming and an inventive choreography (by Michael Ashcroft) to suggest the clamour at the dockside, the rush of battle and the brilliantly lit French court.
The boy in the play who follows Pistol (Ron Cook, a pint-sized Falstaff, and very funny), Nym (Norman Bowman) and Bardolph (Jason Baughan) to the wars is plucked from the cast list as the Chorus, too, a brilliant touch that doubles the well-graced and urgently well-spoken Ashley Zhangazha in a Union Jack T-shirt and backpack as a participating commentator and “one of us.”
The Olivier and the Kenneth Branagh films both cut the king’s command to kill prisoners, immediately followed by Fluellen’s report that the French have committed a war crime in killing their boys and luggage-bearers; but Law doesn’t duck it, and can still be deeply moved by the French “royal fellowship of death,” and the few English losses with God on their side.
This version may not have the swagger and bombast of the Michael Bogdanov production, which gave the French king’s line “Thus come the English with full force upon us,” the apprehension of a town mayor expecting to be ransacked by beer-guzzling soccer hooligans, or the testosterone-fuelled dynamism of Edward Hall’s recent version for his all-male Propeller company.
But it does have a steady low thrum of human vitality in a theatre of war, with the comic knockabout of the Welshman’s leek and the duped soldier’s glove serving a higher thematic purpose than cheap laughs. The spirit of Shakespearean comedy – low vulgarity piercing the dark – is fully honoured. There’s a lovely backwards glance to Eastcheap riotousness as Noma Dumezweni (a Royal Shakespeare Company associate, and it shows) recounts the death of Falstaff, balanced against Pistol’s assertion after Agincourt that he’s going home to a harsher place and a life of crime.
This pioneering Michael Grandage Company season – playing to 92 per cent capacity, with over a quarter of the seats sold for £10, a full education programme and free schools’ performances – has encompassed some great performances from Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Radcliffe and Judi Dench. Law shows his macho mettle in an ensemble of twenty; and his wooing of the Princess Katharine (a delightful Jessie Buckley) is a real crowd-pleaser.