Henry V review – a deeply thoughtful study of war's victors and victims

Ustinov, Bath
Elizabeth Freestone’s highly kinetic production matches an often vulnerable Henry with a wonderfully punky Katharine

Henry V is a king in name only at the beginning of Elizabeth Freestone’s highly kinetic production at the Ustinov studio. He tears off his shirt and tie to reveal himself in full party-boy mode, surrounded by drinking pals. They drink and dance to the Ordinary Boys song Boys Will Be Boys before Henry collapses to the ground, sleeping off his hangover in his clothes. When his kinsmen and advisers arrive to discuss war with France, they have to scoop him up off the floor first. Canterbury describes “the Gordian knot of it” while tying Henry’s tie around his neck so he can receive the French embassy. This is a liminal king, caught on the threshold of adulthood.

The diplomatic and military demands of war compel him to set aside the past. Ben Hall captures Henry’s transformation with one of his own: at first, he seems a man unhappy with his own height, stooping a little, his hands held awkwardly as he tries to occupy the space and title allotted to him. He seems to expand upwards to become the warrior king of Harfleur and Agincourt. Now he is a man who can pass a death sentence on an old drinking friend for looting a church, making no exception for their past intimacy. His eyes fill with tears as he watches Bardolph strangled. He wipes them away to receive the French embassy, the mask of kingship returning to cover the vulnerability of the man beneath. Hall takes on Henry’s most famous monologue with conviction and energy, punching through “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” as the stage fills with billowing dust and the chaos of battle ensues.

Hall is matched by strong performances across the impressive ensemble cast, from the calmly proficient York (Luke Grant) to the fiery Fluellen (David Osmond). And Henry meets his match in Heledd Gwynn’s wonderful punky, androgynous Katharine. This French princess has a shaved head, hoop earrings and a skin-tight lilac trouser suit. When she grieves over the body of her dead lover, trying to name her pain in English and French, Henry – the all-conquering king – physically blanches at her fury.

Rosie Armstrong as Bardolph, Zachary Powell as Nym, Melody Brown as Mistress Quickly, Chris Donnelly as Pistol, Corey Montague-Sholay as Boy.
Party mode … Rosie Armstrong as Bardolph, Zachary Powell as Nym, Melody Brown as Mistress Quickly, Chris Donnelly as Pistol, Corey Montague-Sholay as Boy. Photograph: Craig Fuller

Lily Arnold’s simple but effective set – four metal cages filled with stones – shifts from podium in the opening scenes to trenches in the second half. The soldiers cluster around them, injured and exhausted. The cast switch their insignia from English to French with the arrival of Henry or Katharine to the field. These rank-and-file soldiers and their officers are entirely interchangeable.

Freestone took inspiration from the first world war exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and the comparison is well-drawn. The point is made more painfully still when Exeter (a terrifically contained Alice Barclay) reads the list of English dead after Agincourt. She stands over the body of the servant, Boy, as she declares that “None else of name” is dead. Her voice cracks as she looks down at the young man’s corpse. His name, his life, are of no importance.

Freestone has created a fine, deeply thoughtful production, which raises the question of what war does to its victors as much as to its victims. When Henry asks Katharine to “Take me, take a soldier. Take a soldier, take a king,” he is offering every part of himself to her, cradling her shaven head to his. The boy Harry is long gone, the king Henry remains.

  • Henry V is at the Ustinov, Bath, until 21 July. Box office: 01225 448844.


Natalie Haynes

The GuardianTramp

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