The production feels like Shakespeare for tourists: — too bare a design, too sparse a company – as if all the money had gone into the West End venue or Jude Law’s pocket, leaving but short change for all else. What with Scottish separatism, Welsh nationalism, migration into the UK and the role of Britain in Europe all currently hot topics, it’s in some ways a timely production, though what Shakespeare’s most rousing take on English nationalism, however inclusive, can contribute to the current debate is still up for grabs, even after seeing the play.
This Henry V has been chopped up and shortened; probably in an attempt to render it palatable to an audience who really couldn’t care less what the play was about, the reasons for staging it now, or even the fact that it is Shakespeare. They’d just come to see Jude Law. And they don’t leave disappointed: He’s magnificent.
Seeing Jude Law recently in films such as Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013) and Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2013), highlighted how, as he was beginning to lose his looks, to grown into a baldy, baggy-eyed middle-age, he seemed to be gaining in stature as an actor. On film, he’s simply never been better. He’s no longer pretty in Side Effects but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? In Anna Karenina, as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, he seem to finally allows the audience to discover him as a great actor. Of the protagonists, he’s really the only one who conveys a recognizable person and a way of life. It’s interesting because the role is historically a dud (few actors win kudos for playing middle-aged, dull, and respectable). Yet, Law makes us believe him in the part, quite an achievement when one considers his career and persona.
There seems an inverse correlation between his looks and, if not his acting per se, then perhaps our appreciation of it. But onstage, our first image of him as Henry V, crowned, robed and bathed in amber light — a sight that incites a collective intake of breath — is one that has more to do with how we first saw him in the movie all those years ago than on our experience of seeing him in the movies now. At that initial moment, Henry’s introduction to the audience, he’s as beautiful and golden as he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, USA, 1999), looking divine in both the literal and slangy senses of the word.
Later, when he comes on-stage to receive the Dauphin’s tennis balls and begins to talk of the balls he’ll hang in Paris, he seems sexier than he ever has, manly, powerful. He’s dressed in a leather sleeveless jacket that is not quite a waistocat, tightly buttoned to accentuate broad shoulders and very slim waist, the jacket flaring slightly just above the hip and overhanging a too large cod-piece. He wears green hipster trousers over boots of the same colour to lengthen the leg. The ensemble allows his body a full range of movement, and he’s an actor who can command his body to expressive purposes dramatically and with grace. The contrast between how he looks and what he conveys on stage in Henry V and how he looks and what he conveys in the trailer for the forthcoming Dom Hemingway (Richard Shephard, UK, 2013) is in itself a coup de théâtre
The Agincourt battle scenes give him a chance to heave, run, rant and eulogise, which he does effortlessly. His ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ speech is very fine though it doesn’t quite make you forget that this is the way ideology works, getting people to give up their lives for an idea at great risk and no material benefit to themselves, an idea underlined later by the troops he talks to when he disguises himself as an ordinary man and walks incognito through the encampment. Maybe we’re too cynical now to buy into it in the same way we imagine wartime audiences for Olivier’s film of Henry V (1944, UK) did, or perhaps Law doesn’t quite pull it off. I any case one can imagine it being rousing without quite succumbing and allowing it to be moving. However, later on, Law pulls off the masculine mateyness required of him with the same élan that he did the regal, the imperious, and the lordly near the beginning when condemning the traitors to death.
Law’s obviously very good in the action sequences and he speaks the verse fluidly and well. He makes the stage crackle by his presence; proceedings seem to pick up pace and energy, though his voice lacks the power of Olivier and his speaking of the verse does not seem as varied as Branagh’s (1989, UK) in the two film versions of the play that I have seen. However, as the play proceeds other actors rise to Law’s challenge and the play picks up pace. Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen in particular also got a round of applause from the audience for their comic playing, both excellent with the verse; the latter perhaps because of his youth, also bringing energy and physicality to his comedy playing. He gets his laughs without clowning but with verve. Ashley Zanghazha is also excellent as the one-man chorus who set the scene and dramatises the play’s self-reflexivity.
There’s a comic interlude in the play, an English lesson where Lady Alice (Noma Dumezweni) teaches Princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley) English, and probably inserted merely to allow the boys a costume change, that nonetheless is very well thought through and directed and is funny and graceful whilst narratively setting up the final wooing of Princess Katherine by Henry.
That final wooing scene is the crowning glory of Law’s performance. He’s been charismatic, graceful, dynamic and moving throughout the course of the play. But nothing surprised as much as the comedy in his wooing: he gets laughs by letting the audience in the joke, the speech least likely to have been written about Law himself:
‘therefore was I created with a
stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when
I come to woo ladies, I fright them. But, in faith,
Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear
But in his performance there is also the way he positions his leg, and the speed at which he gets up. The speech also allows him range. He’s simulatenously moving, embarrassed, flirty, arrogant and kingly; then a man wooing a woman and on the verge of doing wrong and almost apprehended by his beloved’s father as the French King walks in to the ratify the treaty.
He’s truly great. It’s hard to think anyone of his generation offering a better Henry V. And he gives the audience what they came for; not only the chance to see a movie star, but the thrill of seeing a movie star act live; a thrill in some cases charged with a more personal frisson (my friend, a fan, measured the distance from our seats to the stage and said, ‘I’ll probably never be this close to him again in my life’). When at the end one has seen a movie star give a great performance on stage in one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, then the joy is complete. Too bad Michael Grandage’s production doesn’t rise to the level of its star.
Seen at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, 18th December, directed by Michael Grandage