It is impossible to watch Max Webster’s modern-dress staging of Henry V without seeing flashes of Russia’s war on Ukraine in its machine-gun fire, bomb blasts and other pointed scenes of violence. Kit Harington’s King Harry is not a tyrant in Putin’s strongman mould but a seemingly reasonable leader, though we begin with a brief flashback to his Prince Hal days: he snorts coke and vomits before that dissolute memory melts away.
The reformed king appears like a chief executive and his court an accountancy firm – all steel grey suits and shirts – so that his proposition to invade France seems closer to a corporate takeover. It is a stark moment when the army fatigues and automatic rifles emerge on stage and the reality of war commences.
Every performance is polished but Harington absolutely stands out: he begins quietly and while he never raises the volume, his transformation in victory is monstrous, erupting into manic laughter on hearing England has triumphed at Agincourt.
As a soldier he has no hint of the machiavellian, rousing his troops before Harfleur (“teach them how to war”), and crouching down to their level in his magnificent St Crispin’s Day speech so that he appears suddenly not the king of divine rights but an equal fighter among them. As a conqueror, though, he shows himself to be a businessman tyrant. He forces marriage on to Katherine, the defeated French monarch’s daughter (Anoushka Lucas, excellent at emanating contained trauma), in the manner of a swiftly brokered business arrangement, which he seals with a cursory handshake and forced kiss.
There are other powerful moments: Bardolph’s hanging is painfully protracted, spot-lit as he swings (Lee Curran’s lighting, as a whole, is superb). English soldiers appear like debauched barbarians when victory is declared, grinding themselves to a thumping electronic beat in an after-party of sorts.
But this is, ultimately, an over-orchestrated production, bringing together so many elements on Fly Davis’s gold set that it feels like theatrical overkill. The first half is especially over-stuffed: a back-screen with projected images (from dynastic family trees to closeups, designed by Andrzej Goulding) also comes apart to form the St George’s Cross. The various visual effects are arresting but cumulatively overwhelming. There is also choral singing, again powerful, but this comes too frequently and undercuts the strength of Shakespeare’s words, especially after the St Crispin’s Day speech. There is an almost constant whirl of movement as actors enter and exit from gangways on either side of the stage, and soldiers at war move with carefully choreographed grace, which seems antithetical in essence to the ugly mess of battle.
The second half is more meditative and stripped back, bringing moments of immense power. French is inserted into many scenes, with a translation running on a screen beside the stage. While Shakespeare’s original French conversation between Katherine and her lady in waiting, Alice (Marienella Phillips), works well for its playfulness – the women work out in boxing gloves while they talk – the additional French feels unnecessary and alienating.
The chorus, meanwhile, is a green-haired millennial (Millicent Wong) who declaims in arch tones, perhaps aiming for irony, and occasionally throws in some Mandarin. It is puzzling and grating – one of too many bells and whistles in a production where less might have been much more.
At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 9 April.