The king is weeping as his subjects sing his praises. In this dynamic co-production between Headlong and Shakespeare’s Globe, Oliver Johnstone’s gentle, troubled Henry transforms under the weight of power, his “soft mercy” slowly turning venomous.
Amid the golden candle glow, Holly Race Roughan’s finely tuned production starts at the end of Henry IV part II, with Harry’s father’s final piece of advice to his son: “Busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” When a single tennis ball is sent to mock him from the Prince of France, Henry’s need to overpower the French becomes a way to prove his strength – to himself, his dead father, and his bleeding country.
The newly crowned king dances between his gut-deep desire to be merciful and his heady need to be seen as strong. After a moment of violence, he berates himself, sickened by what he’s done. Rather than a rallying cry to his people, his instruction to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” is given only to himself, his weaknesses reflected back at him in Moi Tran’s beautifully grubby, bronze set.
Henry’s cruelty comes to a head in a blazing scene between the Queen of France (Eleanor Henderson) and Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies), as Katherine is given to Henry. She recoils from him and he aggressively twists her neck for a kiss. When he leaves, Katherine’s frantic plea to her mother to help her learn English becomes desperate, the words – for hand, neck, nails – blurring amid her tears.
With dramaturg Cordelia Lynn’s precise, clarifying cuts, we run at pace to war. The battle is fought by a fantastic ensemble taking multiple roles who delightfully embrace the artifice of it all. When they call on us to “Behold the threaden sails / Borne with the invisible and creeping wind”, the company offers the stage as a make-believe space to grapple with these impossible questions of goodness and nationhood, as a chance to challenge our history through play.
The invented, modern finale draws a neat line between Henry’s England and our own. We’re still forcing foreigners to give in, this production suggests, still clutching a hand on their neck, digging in our nails, until we arbitrarily decide we are satisfied. This is a coruscating production about the desperate grasp for power, and how it does no man or country any good.
At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 4 February.