Saturday 5 March 2022

Henry V at the Donmar, or, Back to the Same Old, Same Old

Note: This is a review of the preview matinee on Saturday 19th February 2022 and written shortly afterwards. In view of the Covid cancellations and delayed press night I decided not to post until after the press night which has now taken place.

 Henry V feels to me like one of the more frequently staged Shakespeares (certainly among the history plays) and a new staging consequently runs up against the challenge of how to make the work fresh. It is a challenge which this production sadly fails to meet.

This was my first encounter with director Max Webster, though family members had recently reported positively on his Life of Pi. Webster and designer Fly Davis go for a very bare staging. There's a metallic like backdrop and a three level raked bare platform on which virtually the only furniture in three hours are occasional plastic chairs which look more suited to a classroom than a throne room. There is little concrete sense of place at any point - the single sustained exception is the Henry/Mountjoy scene towards the end of the first half. For atmosphere Webster is reliant, as far too many current directors seem to be, on projections supplied on this occasion by Andrzej Goulding. These are used in three ways - to explain elements of the plot (fair enough on the Salic Law speech, superfluous when we're on the road to Agincourt), to project the faces of the two monarchs, and to reinforce the text (waves to make clear that we're travelling by sea when the Chorus is describing this). As a whole the projections make little impression, and particularly in that last instance, suggested to me a lack of confidence in the audience to use their imagination. Overall the environment is dull to look at, and feels like a repeat of an approach I've seen often before.

The setting is compounded by another decision common to Shakespeare stagings in recent years - the swapping of swords for guns. In my experience it is really difficult to make this work for the simple reason that these plays are full of death but it is rarely possible when using guns to have any convincing onstage deaths. This production doesn't avoid this pitfall. There are a couple of moments which feel genuinely violent - usually when we are dealing with individual confrontations (or when Pistol considers suicide) but the ensemble scenes rarely find that sense of threat. There are two further contributory factors here. The first is Benoit Swan Pouffer's undistinguished movement direction. His background, per his programme bio, is almost entirely in ballet and it shows - too often the ensemble movement feels too pretty, and rather than creating a sense of momentum slows everything down. The second is Andrew T. Mackay's oratorio like score. In order to perform this four members of the cast are singers with operatic backgrounds all doubling up in various small roles. The score in itself didn't for me merit this, and I'm afraid despite their best efforts this casting contributes to what is overall a set of only solid performances with often not enough variation when doubling. Of the score itself, at times it is overly intrusive - a setting of "In darkness let me dwell" (I couldn't quite make out if it was Dowland's or a variant on it) before Henry tours the camp on the eve of Agincourt felt like another occasion when the production team didn't trust the text to make the necessary effect on its own, but the music ended up diminishing the text. In many of the battle scenes it contributes to slowing down the action, having a kind of deadening effect where what is needed is an intensification of the drama. Altogether I increasingly started to feel that the production team were going for filmic effects which did not work effectively in the theatre setting.

The final problem with the production, and one which partly arises from the combined effects of the dull staging, and the slowing created by movement and score, is that pacing almost uniformly is too slow. At the outset Webster, mistakenly in my view, crowbars in bits of Henry IV involving Prince Hal, Falstaff and so on carousing. This failed to make me care about the fates of his former friends, nor did it add any additional weight to what is still an abrupt transformation into the King - I'd suggest that much more crucial to explaining this is the deathbed encounter with his father and that if you're going to bring in anything from Henry IV to a Henry V staging done in isolation it should be that. But I also think that, if you're doing Henry V as a standalone production you're much better off to be very subtle in the links drawn backwards and forwards and to trust to your audience to make connections. Beyond that this production rarely generates momentum - it very much feels three hours in length.

It's difficult to work out what was the driver for another Henry V staging - the most obvious explanation is that Kit Harington wanted to have a go at the lead and it was hoped he would be good box office. There is a lot of promise in Harington's performance - much of the textual delivery is strong and there are at least a couple of really fine moments - his response to the French Ambassador at the beginning and, in the best scene in the whole afternoon, his encounter with Mountjoy on the eve of Agincourt. But he hasn't quite yet got the full measure of the different changes of mood, of character which the part requires, and he doesn't yet quite command throughout in the way that I think the character needs to. He also sounded under vocal strain in places, a bit worrying considering this is only the beginning of the run.

Of the ensemble the best performances come from David Judge, doubling as Mountjoy/Nym, and Anoushka Lucas as Katherine. In a show as already noted replete with doubling Judge stands out for really distinguishing his two roles - he both carries himself, and speaks quite differently. Notice in particular his sense of authority in that scene with Henry, contrasted with the beaten down Nym when he finds Pistol has married his girl. Others in the ensemble could learn from him. The production seeks to make something of Katherine, often a rather thankless role, and Lucas brings a welcome energy to her scenes such that it's a pity the role isn't larger. One frustration though, is the wooing scene. Webster seems to want to subvert this and when Henry first tries to kiss Katherine it is chilling, but we're soon back in a familiar reading - it doesn't feel properly thought through. The rest of the ensemble are solid. They deserve credit for nearly all of them being bilingual, though I wasn't ultimately convinced that having the French scenes delivered in French added a great deal beyond novelty to the production, but most of them don't distinguish their different roles sufficiently, and the performances rarely exerted a sustained grip on me.

At the very end Webster has Chorus repeat the final lines about bloody England. This seems to aim for contemporary resonance but it feels unfocused and, as elsewhere, lacking trust in the text and in the audience to draw their own links. Overall, this is an overlong afternoon, without enough strong performances to lift a dull production, and without much fresh to say about a familiar text. Missable.

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