Henry V is a barometer of British views about war. In 1944, Laurence Olivier’s film was flooded with patriotic zeal; in 2003, Nicholas Hytner’s production spoke sardonically of invading Iraq. Now Max Webster finds an illuminating path through the play in his production. Never has the word “mercy” resounded so insistently in Shakespeare’s drama of conquest.
In this game of thrones Kit Harington’s young king is subtle, precise, steadily growing in resolution. Passages from Henry IV are tucked in early on – the renunciation of Falstaff among them – so that his growth from lad to leader is clear. He is first glimpsed bleary after roistering; later, bewildered after his father’s death; then, newly crowned, attentively picking his way through baffling hereditary arguments at which sleekly suited courtiers groan “oh God”.
This is a Henry equal in military and mental alertness. His reign unfolds as a series of decisions in which mercy and mastery are pitted against each other. He decrees that those who have plotted against him should not evade death. He approves the hanging of his old drinking buddy: the first half of the evening ends with Bardolph’s body twitching on the rope. On the battlefield he orders the killing of prisoners. His wooing of Katherine makes it clear that she is another spoil of war. First skittish and bluff, he ends in command mode. This rapture-capture is the more striking because Anoushka Lucas is a crisp, simper-free princess: she wears boxing gloves for their English lesson.
This is a modern-dress production – dusty camouflage uniforms – but with no straining for contemporary parallels. It has its military sinews stiffened with the help of advice from former Royal Marines commando Tom Leigh: the soldiers jostle towards the stalls as if on an assault course. It has its blood quickened and chilled by being infused with music: a rowdy chorus of Sweet Caroline at the beginning; Purcell’s Cold Song unleashed over the stillness of the body-strewn battlefield by the marvellous bass-baritone Adam Maxey.
Simultaneously action-packed and full of descriptions of unseen movements, Henry V is not easy to steer. Millicent Wong is a well-judged sardonic Chorus, but the Donmar can barely contain the bigness and busyness. Designer Fly Davis’s burnished gold screen is aptly split by a red cross made of warning lights, but ruffled by too many videos of seas and smoke and kingly features. Yet there are welcome bold innovations. The French, at court and on the battlefield, speak in French (with surtitles). Which has a triple effect: it brings a new naturalness (you don’t have to wonder why this lot are using their enemy’s tongue to talk to each other); it makes evident the gap between the two sides; it suggests an evenness of sympathy. There is no natural order, no inevitable language of victory. As the king exults at Agincourt his followers are silent, unmoving – left haggard by shock. After battle the chorus is reduced to wordless sobs.
Our Generation takes the National Theatre forward. Not because Alecky Blythe’s play always comes off, but because of the possibilities it opens up. Drawing on interviews conducted over five years, Blythe uses the verbatim technique with which she created Come Out Eli, and later London Road, to deliver first-hand accounts of the lives of British teenagers. Actors repeat not only words but the coughs, hesitations, gurgles and wheezes with which they are underlined and undermined. This changes the way we listen and alters our idea of what “realism” is.
Some of the accounts, delivered in fitful bursts by a wonderful, youthful cast, who slip effortlessly over the stage, are unforgettable because of desolation. At the age of 17, one girl takes up with a 22-year-old who abuses her, much as her father did her mother: as she tries to avoid describing what is happening, her face becomes streaked with mascara like prison bars. There are pungent sentences: “My nails are, like, longer than my future”; better, one boy says, to be obsessed with yourself: “You never meet anyone like yourself.” Yet most are memorable because they capture, in an exacerbated version of the adult condition, the flip-flop between the inconsequential and the crucial in daily life.
There is the girl who lights up like a fruit machine with equal pleasure at the idea of hajj and Primark; the boy who is thinking of becoming a police officer because he is good at working out what goes wrong in his family; the studious lad who decides that since he does not like pain he should abandon the idea of being a wrestler and keep it as “a sideline”; the boy with parents from Kosovo who wants to be a basketball player and is seen amid his conscientious family, his limbs and syllables lolling down like used elastic bands.
Some limitations of Our Generation can be explained away by deciding that its structure is simply mirroring its subjects’ personalities. The play does not so much develop as shimmy and dart, changing from minute to minute: that’s confusing, but perhaps purposefully echoes adolescent switchback moods. It is almost entirely inward-looking: of course it is – these are teenagers. Yet seeing so little of their external pressures risks highlighting eccentricity, making each individual seem without consequence and connection. Change comes as unexplained shock. In an excruciating scene, a fee-paying schoolboy is put through his paces with I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin (with accent!). In one of the show’s most shocking moments this nervous grinner and younger brother of high achievers later explains he is recovering from a nervous breakdown.
Director Daniel Evans, who runs Chichester theatre, to which Our Generation will move, knows how to harmonise a stage, to make it look as if the scattered participants can naturally gather to a chorus – as they do here at the end of acts, but not throughout. At three hours 40 minutes with two intervals, this is a baggy, vivacious first draft, in need of cutting. Plenty of generating, but not quite a sense of a generation.
Star ratings (out of five)
Henry V ★★★★
Our Generation ★★★
• Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 9 April
• Our Generation is at the National Theatre, London, until 9 April and a the Chichester Festival theatre, 22 April-14 May