Last updated: December 4, 2013 5:26 pm

Henry V, Noël Coward Theatre, London – review

Jude Law makes a charismatic, tough, troubled king in this beautifully paced production
Jude Law in 'Henry V'©Johan Persson

Jude Law in 'Henry V'

The key to Jude Law’s Henry V perhaps lies in a scene we never see: that poignant moment at the end of Henry IV when the young Hal tells his old drinking buddy Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man.” This is a man who can be ruthless – his sharp command mid-battle to kill the prisoners clearly shocks his men – but he is also a man who feels the weight of it. He conveys keenly the tormented loneliness of the king as, crouched incognito beside his ragged soldiers in the firelight the night before Agincourt, he hears their fear and understands fully that if they die it will be under his orders. He also reminds us that, though we know the English will win the day, he has no such assurance: the odds are poor. We watch him grow up. Law makes a charismatic, tough, troubled Henry: a king with the common touch, but a king nonetheless, and thus a fine linchpin for this restless play about leadership and war.

The staging closes Michael Grandage’s season here and, directed by Grandage, it has his trademark lucidity and fleetness of foot. Christopher Oram’s set, as for Grandage’s masterly King Lear at the Donmar, is spare and backed by high semicircular wooden walls, suggesting half the wooden “O” described by the Chorus at the outset. Simplicity makes for fluidity and this, together with eloquent use of lighting by Neil Austin, keeps the play moving. You feel the shape of the drama and see how Shakespeare’s roving focus subtly darkens the heroic story of the famous victory. One of the finest little scenes comes from Noma Dumezweni as Mistress Quickly, retreating forlornly as she waves the men off to battle.

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It’s not urgent or revelatory like some recent Henrys and it occasionally turns too glossy (the music seems unnecessary). But it’s a beautifully paced delivery of the play, trusting in text and actors to find the resonances – and differences – between the medieval world and our own. Only the Chorus (Ashley Zhangazha), a lad in a Union Jack T-shirt, makes the link explicit. There is some lovely work among the ensemble, with Ron Cook a particularly funny Pistol, always cocked, never firing. The playful English lesson for the French Princess Katharine (a quick-witted Jessie Buckley) is perfectly pitched. So too is Henry’s awkward wooing of her, with Law’s monarch popping his crown down on the ground as he faces this, his final – and biggest – challenge as a man.


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