Imagine Henry V without crowd-lashing feats of oratory. Imagine it without crowds. Without the patriotic fervour of Olivier’s 1944 film, the sceptical disaffection of Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 production. Without some of the most flaring speeches: no “muse of fire”! You might think you would hardly recognise Shakespeare’s play. Well think again. In an extraordinary stripped-back version, for which the playwright Cordelia Lynn was the dramaturg and Holly Race Roughan the director, you seem to be looking into the core of the young king. The battlefield may be France, the site of contention England. But it is also the self.
There is little rush and roar on this stage. Under the stately glow of the Wanamaker candelabra, Moi Tran’s design begins with unfortunate ruched curtains but moves revealingly to a glorious background of tarnished mirrors. The cast are in modern dress (Fluellen wears a Scandi jumper), often seated on chairs. Dialogue is intimate and intense.
Oliver Johnstone is terrific: utterly concentrated; steadily growing; a young king propelled by anger but riven. There are reminders of Hamlet and of Richard II. He delivers “once more unto the breach” hugging his knees, not roaring at troops but willing himself into action. The deathbed scene from Henry IV Part 2 is helpfully imported at the beginning so that inheritance haunts the action.
I have never seen a Henry with such an inner life – nor one so evidently toxic. He gloats over the dead. His threats to the French – basically, I’ll kill your babies – are not hurled from a distance but delivered with intimate menace. They have never sounded so horrifying, or so like curses – which are usually women’s work.
The personal and political are intertwined, growing one from another, helped by fine, crisp acting throughout, particularly from Eleanor Henderson as the dauphin. When the French princess Katherine – oh these familiar names – is handed over to seal the peace, the action is freezing, forced, brutal. You might expect a coda involving 21st-century British immigration officials to be embarrassing and obtrusive, yet the past seeps naturally into the present. What a feat.
Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial is a game of two halves. Half-panto, half-audience provocation. With impressive speed, Liv Hennessy has adapted the transcript of the mind-boggling court proceedings earlier this year between footballers’ wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Lisa Spirling directs the result to make a springy insta-success.
Framed by avid commentators who deliver match reports on the action, the trial takes place in a set as flimsy as the evidence; the judge blows a whistle to declare time. It is not hard to reproduce the appearance of women branded from head to foot – tiny top-of-the-head buns, big top-of-the-range handbags – but Lucy May Barker (Rebekah Vardy) and Laura Dos Santos (Coleen Rooney) are vibrant with attitude.
Barker enters to boos and proceeds to do brilliant f***-off acting, much of it with her neck. Brass neck. Dos Santos, who grew up in Liverpool, emphasises Rooney’s Liverpudlian accent to an extent that a London audience found hilarious, and gets approving murmurs. She emits resigned attention – spelling out the word “Wags”, as she doesn’t use the term – her sharpness honed by a canny lifetime of dealing with the media. Beside her, Nathan McMullen’s Wayne looks bewildered.
Jutting jaws, jagged one-liners and a grubby list of what the Sun thinks most interests the public (not the same as public interest): floods in glitzy basements, strikers in pyjamas. It is comic pop-up, but it’s better written than most farces.
Vardy shuffles – “I did use the word … but it wasn’t what I meant” – and has been derided for asking who Davy Jones is, yet her idiom often outstrips a barrister’s antique expressions. Surely the chipolata (AKA Peter Andre’s todger) will become a classic measurement. Rooney gets the Mandy Rice-Davies award for pertinence: asked why she wasn’t honest with Vardy, she says “because I didn’t want to be”. There is a shift in outrage as the filthy online abuse hurled at Vardy is repeated. And an awareness. Being in an audience gives you the cloak of anonymity: concerted baying can be the public equivalent of trolling.
Anyone who saw Deborah Warner’s production of The Tempest this summer will remember Dickie Beau’s Ariel, lip-syncing to Fiona Shaw’s voice while walking with fixed stare and measured tread as if on a gymnast’s beam. A lightning rod for strangeness. Now Beau closes Warner’s first season as artistic director of the Ustinov Studio with a show inspired by conversations with critic Rupert Christiansen, who says critics are self-important parasites (audiences always appreciate critic-bashing). So here goes.
¡Showmanism!, a ventriloquial exploration of what the theatre can do, is a dazzle: full of newness, sometimes splurging, exciting. Curated, directed and performed only by Beau, it is rich in recorded voices lipsynced and mostly unnamed; they swarm together in the air. Ian McKellen offers some wise words and a hairy story about drying onstage (paradoxically in the sea-drenched Tempest) with no prompt, and having to dial up a line from the wings. I would have guessed it would be drive and spurt that made Fiona Shaw’s speech so recognisable: actually it was something I had barely clocked as characteristic – the giggle she unleashes when she talks about playing Clytemnestra. The great voice coach Patsy Rodenburg offers illuminations. People with voices coming from far back in the throat – Hitchcock and Henry Kissinger – are people with secrets.
There is visual glitz all right: Beau appears bare-chested with a dragonfly jewelled girdle, and occasionally does some lithe slinking and writhing. But there are few props: a skull, a spade, a sword. The point is to rediscover the vitality of the voice in an age in which we are used to giving precedence to sight over hearing. The point is to affirm the vitality of the voice in an age in which we are used to giving precedence to sight over hearing, to rediscover its ability to conjure: to listen, as audiences did in a Greek amphitheatre, marvellously described as a stone ear. What a Beau stratagem.
Star ratings (out of five)
Henry V ★★★★
Vardy v Rooney ★★★★
Henry V is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 4 February 2023
Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial is at Wyndham’s, London, until 20 December
¡Showmanism! is at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, until 10 December