Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Henry the Fifth

Review: Henry the Fifth

Hang on, hang on. The kids get this probing, playful little marvel and we grown-ups get Jude Law? I mean, sure, he has his charms (and his cheekbones), but will he have a sandpit to stand in for France? Will he have balloon drops and Monty Python references? Will Jude Law critique the troubling male perspective inherent in war stories that at some level perpetuates the act of warmongering itself? WILL HE?

Ignace Cornelissen’s adaptation (in Purni Morell’s translation) is really a retelling of history in its own right, albeit borrowing the odd moment from Shakespeare’s version of events, most notably Henry’s discussion in disguise with one of his men. Mostly, though, Cornelissen whittles Henry’s war with France down to a simple cycle: invade, retreat, return; siege, do battle, destroy. Ellen McDougall’s production – and script and staging seem so integrated, it’s impossible to pick them apart – shows us two schoolboys squabbling over a sandcastle.

McDougall starts with a game of boules. From the wings, four balls roll onstage, each rumbling like their own drum-roll and each closer to the petanque than the last. This is a game of territory. When one goes wayward, Shane Zaza steps onstage, stomps over, picks it up and plonks it down next to the petanque. Then, for good measure, he scoops up two others and deposits them down his trousers. This is Henry the Fifth and not only is he breaking the rules to win, he’s breaking the game to make sure.

Much that follows can be read in those terms. James Button’s design gives us a sandpit for France. It sits on a pool table-like structure, under a large sign: ‘FRANCE.’ It has one huge sandcastle surrounded by several smaller ones on it.  As actors tramp around the table, increasingly doing battle, they gradually flatten the castles, until finally, only a flat landscape remains. Nobody wins and yet, off go Henry and the Dauphin – or Nigel, as he is here (Rhys Rusbatch) – to rebuild and, crucially, to rearm.

That’s sharp, concise dramaturgical thinking: a strong thematic line pulled out and well-carried by onstage semiotics: from the child-like sandcastles to the balloon armies tossed into enemy territory like boules. It’s played with aplomb – so much so that one explosion drew a soft heckle on press night: ‘That was sick.’ – but also with collaboration. Zaza, in particular, has a knack of making us feel like we’re creating the story; his whirring eye-contact, an unblinking wink, somehow turns us into co-conspirators, as does his sharing a joke on his colleagues with us his audience. Besides, the whole production asks us to see the story in the staging, to take it as read that Henry’s inside the sandcastle and that balloons are soldiers. It doesn’t even need to stress the point. We built this story together.

More cheering still is the way Cornelissen and McDougall critique the story’s telling. While the narrator figure (Abdul Salis) is deferent to Henry, standing back and making him – no, trusting him to make – his own choices, it’s a different matter with the French queen Katharine (Hannah Boyde). When she is locked in the tower, he thwarts her every escape attempt, until she is forced to outwit him and take charge of the story herself. Of course, you can’t expect an expect an eight year-old to unpick complex gender issues and story theory, but that’s not the point. The point is that the problem is problematised, rather than rolled over for ease’s sake. Were every narrative so careful, the problem wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Equally, Cornelissen manages not only to show the problems inherent in “all boys want[ing] to be kings,” but also the perpetuation of that ambition culturally. He has an extraordinary knack of gently prising the story open to admit different perspectives, without needing to smash it apart into something harder to understand. The story remains intact, but it’s authority is questioned: while the people blame the king, the king huffs about constant blame, for example. While the story is presented as just as story, a piece of history such that “nothing like it could possibly happen now,” he adds a fleet-footed question-mark – “Or could it?” – just to prise open the possibilities. He has his king – an medieval English king played by a British Asian actor, no less – run through his options for enhancing the royal coffeurs with a quick run-down of how taxation really works, then start a war for less than noble reasons.

In fact, the more closely you examine this, the more radical it becomes. Yet it does so without ever being unruly and alienating those institutions (schools and families) responsible for actually bringing children into contact with it. Furthermore, these kids don’t realise that what they’re watching is at all irreverent – either politically or aesthetically – because it’s never self-aggrandising. To them, it’s just a piece of theatre. That’s arguably its greatest achievement. Long-term, it normalises a theatre that is probing, playful and non-literal. That’s heartening in the extreme.

Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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