Henry V review – astonishing gender-switched reinvigoration

Open Air theatre, Regent’s Park, London
Michelle Terry is riveting as Shakespeare’s wartime king in a production that emphasises how roleplaying is integral to monarchy

Aside from Hamlet, I can’t think of a Shakespeare play that so much reflects the mood of the moment as this. It’s been variously seen as a five-act national anthem and a cynical dissection of war, but it seems appropriate that, at a time of heightened awareness of gender equality, the title role should be played by a woman in the shape of the astonishing Michelle Terry.

Robert Hastie’s highly intelligent production gives the casting a context. Charlotte Cornwell as Chorus leads on a group of actors in everyday clothes. Having apologised for this “unworthy scaffold” – which in Anna Fleischle’s design is a bare, metallic platform – Cornwell then looks for someone to play the king. Passing over several male actors, who preen with a sense of entitlement, she turns towards Terry and hands her the crown. Immediately, this opens up multiple possibilities: above all, the idea that monarchy is a performance, and that Henry has to assume a variety of conflicting roles.

This strikes me as the key to Terry’s king: the constant battle between military necessity and natural instinct. Henry is obliged to condemn the traitor, Scroop, to death, but after doing so, Terry unexpectedly kisses him. Even more telling is the moment when Terry follows Henry’s barbaric threats to the citizens of Harfleur (“your naked infants pitted upon spikes”) with a grim, sardonic smile. Terry’s Henry also sanctions the use of a firing squad to kill Bardolph and then approaches her old mate’s corpse with a guilty affection. You could argue that Henry is simply a first-class hypocrite; what Terry suggests is something more complex, which is the cost to any wartime leader of the suppression of their humanity.

Ben Wiggins as Princess Katherine and Joy Richardson as Alice
Ben Wiggins as Princess Katherine and Joy Richardson as Alice in Henry V. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

It helps that Terry has a resonant voice that can ring out across the open spaces. But I was struck most by the way she and Hastie reinvigorated a familiar text. There’s a classic example in the pre-Agincourt speech when Henry’s offer of a passport for anyone with no stomach for the fight is seized on by one of her soldiers. Terry then directs the rest of the speech to his departing figure, instantly turning a piece of tub-thumping rhetoric into a moving personal plea. But that is simply the highlight of a riveting performance that makes you see Henry as role player, rather than hero or war criminal.

Hastie’s production mixes gender elsewhere in that the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English captains are played by women, and the French princess by a man: this works perfectly well, even if the climactic wooing scene loses something of its edgy charm. But this is an excitingly staged production in which armies clash by smoke-filled night and drums resoundingly echo from the auditorium’s towers. Cornwell’s Chorus wins our confidence with ease and, in a strong ensemble, there is good work from Philip Arditti as an explosive Pistol and Jack McMullen as a pugnacious Williams. At a time when we are still reeling from the referendum, it is also instructive to be reminded that all leadership involves an element of masquerade.

  • At Open Air theatre, Regent’s Park, London until 9 July. Buy tickets from theguardianboxoffice.com or call on 0330 333 6906


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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