Review: Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre - Credit: Keith Pattison

Understated power – Alex Hassell makes a battle cry for patriotism

This winter the Royal Shakespeare Company explores questions of gender, power and patriotism in an exciting line-up of plays. For the first of the season, Artistic Director of the RSC, Gregory Doran directs a vivid and compelling production of Henry V to mark the 600th Anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Alex Hassell commands attention in the role of the young monarch. The measured rhythm with which he performs Henry’s blank verse deftly portrays a king stifling emotion under the weight of divinely appointed duty. A skilled rhetorician, his simmering power is gradually brought to the forefront as the action progresses – making an explosive entrance onto the stage to shout out a rallying ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends’ in the throes of battle.

Hassell’s outstanding Henry is just the start though – this production is awash with memorable performances. Oliver Ford Davies plays a shuffling Chorus, who in his cardigan and red scarf becomes a welcome history teacher to the audience – his zealous recommendation that they immerse themselves in the story inadvertently halting proceedings to farcical effect. Meanwhile, the grotesque caricatures of the King’s army provide riotous interactions – with Andrew Westfield’s grenade-fumbling MacMorris gloriously upstaged by Simon Yadoo’s incomprehensible Scotsman, Jamy.

The sparse set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is brought to life with evocative lighting by Tim Mitchell, whose flickering projections transport the audience to the battlefields of France. And what the production lacks in props, it makes up for with superb medieval costume design – from the embossed burgundy armour of the English to the extravagant navy velvet of the French.

Doran’s direction steers clear of either a cynical anti-war interpretation or pro-war manifesto – instead the audience is presented with a production that dissects the act of going war from the perspective of the front line, the throne room and the stalls.

Amongst the modern re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s work, it is refreshing to see the text laid bare in this thoughtful production by the RSC. It may be set 600 years ago, but in the hands of a marvellous cast, this is a play that gets under the skin of how we feel about national pride today.

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Catch Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 25 October 2015 and then at the Barbican, London 7 November – 30 December.

Words: Daisy McCorgray

Images: Keith Pattison