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Theatre Review: This Henry V is the right play at the wrong time

Max Webster's production revels in warfare when his audiences are sick to death of it

‘Very in-your-face theatre’: Danny Kirrane in Henry V (Photo: Helen Murray)

Henry V
Donmar Warehouse, London, until April 9

Theatre productions have the turning circles of supertankers and it’s all too easy for one to open at the worst possible time. Max Webster’s Henry V revels in warfare when clearly his audiences – dismayed by Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine – are sick to death of it.

The modern-dress production features Kit Harington as a king in army fatigues who snorts coke and less than engagingly vomits on the stage in its opening moments.

The hanging of Bardolph (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is graphically enacted and the English soldiers under his command celebrate their victories by dancing to Sweet Caroline, humiliating an overweight character (Danny Kirrane) – in the manner of the film Deliverance – and indulging in sado-masochistic brawls. All in all, it’s very in-your-face theatre.

Maybe half a century ago a production like this would have felt cutting edge, but it feels blunt and hackneyed now.

Harington’s king is big on derring-do but short on sensitivity, which makes him tiring company after a while. There is, for all that, some proper acting in the production, such as Anoushka Lucas’s splendidly anguished Katherine, who is compelled to marry the king, and I enjoyed, too, Jude Akuwudike’s dignified King of France and Olivier Huband as a calculating Dauphin.

One gripe – actors in a theatre as small as this should not have to resort to voice amplifiers attached to their heads. They should be able to project sufficiently so everyone can hear them. Still, Webster’s clear intention is to play it all out as if it were a widescreen war film and all the special effects, explosions and gunfire soon drown just about everything out. Quite apart from the unfortunate timing, I wonder about the wisdom of this in principle: the whole point of theatre is to offer an alternative to widescreen war films – it shouldn’t attempt to ape them.

Millicent Wong in the narrator role tries to keep things moving along, but it feels – as this virtually three-hour-long production runs its course – like an increasingly pointless journey.

I will tell you what I am in the mood for now: a production of a Shakespeare play in the period in which he set it, with the words that he actually wrote. That would, all things considered, be quite a novelty.

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