HENRY V – Noel Coward Theatre, WC2

ROYALTY AND ROGUES,  WAR AND WOOING:  JUDE LAW JOINS THE GREATS

The moment of conversion came in the starlight, when Jude Law’s Henry  wanders hooded and disguised among his weary soldiers, and sits for a while listening silently with firelight playing on his face.  The die is cast:  they are outnumbered five to one, he has proudly dismissed the French envoy’s offer.  If these drowsy men die it will be his doing.  That flickering firelit doubt (ah, that Grandage carefulness with lighting – Neil Austin designs it)  speaks volumes about the loneliness of leadership.

I speak of conversion, because despite the heady poetry this has never been for me a favourite among Shakespeare’s histories. The narrative Chorus can make it too much like a masque with  battle scenes,  the final Franglais wooing scene of the French princess seems anticlimactic,  and the offstage death of Falstaff and the vanishing of MIstress Quickly make you miss the warm humanity of the earlier plays.

Which is why you need a Hytner or a Grandage to make it zing.  It happened ten years ago at the National  and praise heaven, it has happened again.  Costume in Mchael Grandage’s production is medieval, Christopher Oram’s set a simple wooden curve.  But the Chorus is  a young modern street-kid in a Union Jack T-shirt (Ashley Zhangazha).  His intensity gives a surprised, excited vigour to the narrative; in the interval we find him lounging on the stage, reading, apparently engrossed in that earlier England’s story.  It draws you in.

That freshness is equally striking in Jude Law’s virile, sensitively balanced Henry.  To make sense of this young King you have to believe that he is not just a combative monarch keen to see off the French, but the roistering old Prince Hal:  the lad who loved life and low company – his people, after all .  He is slightly bored  (Law does this beautifully)  by the Archbishops banging on about Salic Law and the need for war.  Why would the old Hal want to wake“the sleeping sword of war” and creating “a thousand widows”?  He needs convincing.

So in the war scenes he conveys not Olivieresque dramatic heroism but a kind of taut, almost trembling determination to do the thing decently and bravely,  since it must be done. The St Crispin’s Day speech, delivered in a morning mist,   is rousing but leavened by a laddish jokeyness as he makes them laugh with daft voices evoking of old men’s future bragging.   His appalled dignity hearing of ten thousand French dead – “a royal fellowship of death” – feels as real as his sudden kneeling thanks for the astonishing victory.  As for that odd wooing scene with the Princess (Jessie Buckley)  its gruff laddish charm owes much to the sense of a man relaxing after intense strain.

Lesser joys to note:  Ben Lloyd-Hughes full of nervous bravado as the Dauphin praising his horse,  James Laurenson an authoritative Exeter,  and two beautiful evocations by Noma Dumezweni : as Mistress Quickly describing Falstaff’s death with damped, awkwardly flippant emotion, and as Alice the bilingual maid, keeping her thoughts to herself alongside the young Princess.   And since Shakespearian royalty must have rogues alongside, Ron Cook is a disgracefully funny Pistol.  But it’s Jude Law’s face in the firelight which will stay with me.

box office   020 7492 1548  to 15 Feb

Rating:  five.   5 Meece Rating

and Jennifer-Jane Benjamin came with me, and offers again her terse twentysomething one-word-per-star review:

Bold, Valiant, Elegant, Intense, French

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