Henry V thrillingly retooled as a Macbeth-style psychodrama

Oliver Johnstone as Henry V in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production – Johan Persson

It starts with a theft. Rather than the usual prologue, this thrilling revival of Henry V begins with a scene from the end of Henry IV Part 2 in which a trembling Prince Hal takes the crown from his sleeping father, ostensibly believing him to be dead.

It’s a clever throwback, establishing a framework for this ostensibly nationalistic game that allows resonant ideas of legitimacy and imperialism to be in constant debate. Henry IV’s dying admission that he himself obtained the crown through “roundabout dishonest ways” will haunt his inexperienced heir for all that follows. This is a Henry who rules not out of divine conviction but with a private, trembling dread that the crown isn’t even rightfully his to begin with.

It’s hardly revealing to strip away the patriotic myth-making that often shaped our responses to Henry V: earlier this year at the Donmar, Max Webster did exactly that in a shock-and-awe revival with Kit Harington. However, Holly Race Roughan’s production, which to some extent turns the play into a Richard III or Macbeth-style psychodrama, looks bolder, smarter and truer.

Oliver Johnstone’s Henry is an unstable, confused and doubtful man-child who goes to war against France not out of a sense of noble destiny, but in a fit of unbridled resentment of tennis balls. Upon discovering the assassination plot against him, she strangles his former friend and possible lover Scroop with her bare hands. Primarily driven by fear of humiliation and exposure, he manipulates his whining and terrified soldiers into preparing for war with France, in decidedly inglorious scenes reminiscent of Russian conscripts being recalled to the Ukraine. The work’s striking visions of bloodshed, sometimes co-opted as hymns to battlefield glory, have the force of apocalyptic nightmares.

This is a fast, polished, spare production that rarely skimps on detail as it digs deep beneath the opera’s presentations of power, nationality, and, yes, pesky testosterone. In a chilling echo of Scroop’s death, Fluellen, often interpreted as a “Welsh” light relief, is brutalized by Pistol’s racist taunt to nearly choking him to death.

Oliver Johnstone and Joshua Griffin as Henry V in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production

Oliver Johnstone and Joshua Griffin as Henry V in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production

Played by the actor Dharmesh Patel, Scroop “appears” again, as the ghost of Banquo, in the guise of the French herald Montjoy, reappearing with icy taunts about the superiority of the French at times when this most isolated of the Henrys could do without it. . Henry himself, swinging between psychopathic urges and an incipient nervous breakdown, delivers the St Crispin Day speech not as a call to arms but to himself, curled up in a ball by himself, barely able to get the words out.

The mythical ideas of the Englishman are horribly distorted; the hanging of Bardolph is presented as a grotesque maypole dance; the bitter notes of the national anthem are a recurring musical motif. And in a brilliant stroke, the two key scenes with French princess Katherine (Josephine Callies) are reversed, so that she is first brutally forced into marriage by Henry (the fiction of romance is beyond this King too) and then attempts to learn, in increasingly desperate exchanges with her mother, the English words for her own body parts, now in someone else’s possession.

I could have done without the final scene set in a modern day citizenship testing centre: it feels like a rare deceptive parody of illusory English exceptionalism in a production that elsewhere probes just that in ways that feel startlingly focused and fresh. The Globe has been quite variable as of late. This, however, is great.

Until February 4th. Tickets: 020 7401 9919; shakespearesglobe.com

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