A Kingdom For A Stage: Henry V at Donmar Warehouse

Game of Thrones Shakespeare style — English vs French, Agincourt and all the quotes including ‘The Game’s a Foot’. I waited with baited breath to see what Kit Harington and co would do with this no holds barred bombast of a play.

Mixed results is the answer. It was gimmicky with modern dress but still talking about horses (as guns were waived around); gender reversal in roles (particularly generals — so women on the Front Line in this version of 1415; the storytelling boy who is a girl (yet mistaken for a boy) and heaps of video montage. Everyone doubled, some tripled up roles, so I’m not always sure who was who due to the modern dress and multiple role playing.

What worked well was the diverse casting. Jude Akuwudike was terrific and splendid as the King of France, and also an advisory English bishop (give this man meatier roles yet!); I loved the fact that the French family and army spoke French (with subtitles), even the Welsh man spoke Welsh! Katherine, the French Princess, had been given more clout than usual, and the indignity/culture clash of pre-marital kissing almost pushed to a #MeToo level. Here her wooing definitely is a rough one, but she powers through with dignity to duty. There were tennis balls as a very unwanted present to the new English King! The ‘boy’ was brilliant in the prologues and keeping the action going and casting a cynical eye over the leaders, especially in translating for Falstaff (possibly) when a French general was ‘captured’ for ransom. There was a very funny moment when the Archbishop presented inheritance through the female lines of both England and France (a shot against Salic Law) as a dirgy PowerPoint presentation (which my inner historian loved — all those family trees!) Never has Henry V’s desire to play games with France and stay close by the King of France sounded so threatening. Melissa Johns also made a delightful Mistress Quickly, making the role shine more than usual.

Additionally, the director has realised how rude Shakespeare is and modernised the swearing which leads to some amusing effects during the Princess’s English lesson with French to English translation, but also leads to some hardcore swearing at points. On the other hand, the proud Princess really did come across in pronouncing her ‘English’ words with French inflections. The production also dealt nicely with the Irishman, Welshman, Scotsman stereotype comic interludes — the Welshman has dignity and a desire for efficiency; the swopped gloves between two ‘soldiers’ makes more sense and the leek forced eating results in being wee’d on too. This on top of Henry V entering the stage to party and projectile vomit at the beginning!

Kit Harington was brilliant, showing us a youthful King (moving from party-ier to almost Godfather-style funeral of his father in the rain full of remorse and regret to inspiring war leader and King), and most especially in dodging the cascading ramp and balcony to deliver ‘that motivational speech’, and he didn’t downplay it — but thumped his war drum for all he was worth, on a spit of a balcony over the stage. The ramps gave us a real sense of the invasion force too.

What let this production down was the surrounding cast. Danny Kirrane as I think, Falstaff, was awful — during the second half he spoke his lines with such throwaway carelessness that there was no emotion or feeling at all; even a joke was delivered flatly. Falstaff (though annoying, especially to the wives of Windsor) should be funny — more Don Pasquale! This was more Joe Pasquale. I am concerned that a potentially middle class cast was playing at being working class and pushing stereotypes for all they were worth. The stage fighting needs serious work as the marching was frankly lame and the ‘battle’ more of a scrum plus some mortaring; Kit Harington was more effective at all of this as a point of note - (Game of Thrones training kicking in?) The French nobles were shot and then their boots were ghostily left as a memorial to their fight, and valour?

Unnecessarily, the Dauphin snorted Cocaine at one point — clearly the battle was lost, not only to disagreements amongst the leaders but a drug high. The pride of the French came through, but also their indecisiveness. Henry V was shown as a reasonable negotiator, up until the time he took ‘no’ prisoners. There was a nice touch where the English negotiated with the Harfleur commander via a Zoom call, and often translation was in place — but do actions and words match up.

Equally strange was the prologue at the end, where we seemed urged to want our country to bleed. Given events in Ukraine (and Afghanistan and Nigeria and well everywhere) this seemed odd and in poor taste, and I truly wonder what the point was? However I did enjoy the stage transformation during the intermission -the stage was dissected, covered in gravel and turned into a muddy battlefield!

A lot of the text seemed to have been cut which made the Falstaff/Mistress Quickly scenes and the Welshman, Scotsman, Irishman in-fighting disconnected. These also could have been modernised as Shakespeare threw the racism of his age in the faces of the audience then, we could do the same now with our ‘despised’ groups. The army camp scene in which Henry V wandered round disguised as a ordinary soldier to check the morale temperature of his beleaguered troops should have been more heart-warming — here it was more of a geography field trip (but I think due to the editing of the text rather than performance).

I am glad to have seen it, I loved the French dialogue being in French! but I do wonder (for anyone coming fresh to the play) how clear the plot is and whether changing genders of characters around is helpful or confusing given that this is a ‘historical’ play. (Albeit that it was written for a purpose and perhaps not that historical)…Respect also has to be given to Kit Harington for carrying on and not slipping on a combination of masticated leek, grit and fake wee!

Author’s own cheeky photo on stage set up turning it into a French battlefield sweeping grit on to it from 9th April 2022 — illegal as no photography extended to the stage itself at all times! Never has being in the front row been so dangerous since Singing in the Rain!

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Susan Tailby

Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....