Kit Harington is to star as Shakespeare’s Henry V in a modern-day staging that examines the corrupting influence of power and “leadership in a time of crisis”.
The production will be presented in February next year at a newly renovated Donmar Warehouse in London, whose artistic director, Michael Longhurst, has planned a reopening season of plays exploring the individual’s role within society. Harington, best known as Jon Snow in the TV juggernaut Game of Thrones, has already been seen in the realm of “fantasy leadership”, said Longhurst. As Henry V, he will explore “modern political power and the psychology behind that”. The show will be directed by Max Webster, whose acclaimed Life of Pi transfers to the West End later this year.
Webster is “not interested in a production that has boys waggling swords”, said Longhurst. “We are, rightly, really looking at our leadership in a time of crisis and how it steps up or doesn’t, and how power can corrupt and what it means to have a privileged white man running a country that is much more diverse than that. And also, of course, our relationship with those across the Channel feels absolutely relevant right now – and unification is a theme running though Henry V.”
Previous Shakespeare productions at the Donmar include a searing Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston, directed by Josie Rourke in 2013. The intimate Covent Garden theatre, which fits an audience of 251, has a stage “small enough to whisper on and big enough to have a full-sized battle”, said Longhurst, who was named as Rourke’s successor as artistic director in 2018. Harington, like Hiddleston, will bring audiences to Shakespeare who may not know the play, said Longhurst. He praised the Game of Thrones star as an “incredibly sensitive actor and incredibly funny” and said it was the right time for him to be taking on the role of Henry who has “left behind his bad boy days and is trying to step into his power as a leader”.
In 2019, the Donmar staged Mike Lew’s play Teenage Dick, which relocated Shakespeare’s Richard III to an American high school and reimagined the villainous king as a disabled 17-year-old student. A new production of that play, directed by Blythe Stewart, will tour 10 schools in the boroughs of Camden and Westminster this summer. The last year has seen an “ideological assault on the place of the arts”, said Longhurst. “Politically, we have to step up to make a stand about what’s valuable. Access to theatre and fostering that connection to culture, ideas, community, empathy and imagination is vital.” Over the pandemic, many students have been left without access to the theatre. The tour of Teenage Dick, which he calls a “thrilling study of ableism in society”, will bring Shakespeare “in an accessible form to a new audience”.
The Donmar’s reopening season begins in September with Search Party, an interactive show by Inua Ellams (Barber Shop Chronicles) who will perform poetry in response to audience suggestions. It promises “laughter, joy and reflection”, said Longhurst. Search Party is followed by Love and Other Acts of Violence, an “incredibly moving play” by Cordelia Lynn, which jumps through time to explore the rise of the far right and “love and inherited trauma” while following the relationship between a Jewish physicist and a leftwing poet. Elayce Ismail directs a cast including Abigail Weinstock and Richard Katz.
Longhurst will direct a “fist-in-mouth funny” Christmas show, Tim Price’s adaptation of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 black comedy film Force Majeure. Rory Kinnear stars in the play about a holidaying family who are thrown into a crisis, which reveals the expectations we have of fathers. Longhurst hopes couples will leave the show bickering about how they’d behave in the same situation.
Marys Seacole, which opens in April, should provide another talking point. Its author Jackie Sibblies Drury and director Nadia Latif previously collaborated on Fairview at the Young Vic, one of 2019’s most probing productions, which Longhurst praised as surprising, challenging and formally inventive. The play takes the story of Mary Seacole, the 19th-century Jamaican-born nurse who cared for soldiers during the Crimean war, and jumps through different eras to consider “different Marys across time”. After the horrors of the pandemic, the play will “make us think about who has been and who is on our frontline”, he said.
Longhurst is currently directing a revival of Nick Payne’s two-hander Constellations, using four different casts across its run. It is presented by the Donmar at the Vaudeville theatre. The Donmar itself, which occupies a site once used as a brewery and a banana-ripening warehouse, has been undergoing essential building works to make it more welcoming and accessible. “We’ve been able to open out the front-of-house spaces and reveal the Donmar’s bones, that beautiful brickwork,” said Longhurst.