Note: I was graciously provided a free ticket to a showing of Henry V by Sharmill Films at the Dendy Newtown; this is my free and honest review!
How do you make a Shakespeare play—particularly his highly specific (and usually boring) histories—relevant to a contemporary audience? This is the question Max Webster poses in his modern take of Henry V; this staging makes a bold commentary on the failures and tyrannical potholes of modern politics, and makes it well.
Having not read Henry V before watching this staging (and desperately getting up the Sparknotes before the movie started) I was glad indeed of the brief intro that National Theatre live included, alongside an interview with the compelling main man, Kit Harington. The interview definitely shone a light on what to expect of his character; he was startling and crude (our first introduction is through a mouthful of his vomit) yet also moving, emboldening his soldiers in his war effort in France. It was definitely a departure from the hero archetype we’re used to seeing from him, and luckily, he pulled it off well.
Surprisingly, however, he was not my favourite part of this show, but the other characters. For those who hate the long soliloquies of Hamlet, screenings like this are for you; action-packed, and with a focus overwhelmingly on the collective characters, the men and women of Henry’s army as they invade France. Millicent Wong’s performance of the Chorus was stunning, sharp and critical, and highlighted the most compelling part of the play; its use of language. Wong switches between Mandarin and English, the French court speaks real French (rip Shakes’ terrible translations) and Welsh captain Llewellyn often yells in fiery Welsh. Don’t worry though; there are subtitles (thank god). This constant switching of language definitely captures the idea of shifting power evident throughout the play and often highlights the power dynamics, and the xenophobia, embedded within the English court. This is made particularly clear in Henry’s “courting” of Catherine; he entertains her “broken English” until he doesn’t, and abruptly forces a kiss, and English, from her in a scene familiar to post-Trump, and the recent overturning of Roe v Wade.
This play is a study in action and violence, aided gorgeously by the sparse staging of the Donmar Theatre. The use of the space is interesting, where everything, down to the school chair-esque “throne”, is placed there for a reason. The intimate gold-burnished stage is as likely a battleground as a courtroom, and this staging begs the question; what’s the difference? Perhaps, the answer lies in the horrifying violence this play does not shy away from; a platform descending from the sky serves both as a rallying stand for Henry, yet a gallows. The prisoners of war are (unusually) murdered on stage, and chillingly leave their boots in the dirt downstage. This is where the cinematography of the filming really shines; the multiple camera angles really capture the perspectives of both the horrified common soldier, and the indifferent monarchy. This is also where the stunning opera singers make their mark; the overlay of battle scenes and mourning scenes with beautiful operatic soprano and tenor just serve to make us further question the tradition of war against the backdrop of contemporary suffering.
Albeit certain modern elements made me cringe (mainly the use of Darude Sandstorm??), this was definitely Shakespeare modernised well; it’s a testament to the acting and staging of this production that a mid-history play has the impact this delivers. However, I won’t lie to you, the film was 3+ hours long, and even with a 20 minute intermission time, that’s a lot to stomach. If you love Shakespeare or plays critiquing contemporary politics, then absolutely go for it. But if you’re here just to watch Kit Harington be pretty, I’d wait for it to come out on National Theatre’s superb at-home subscription service (where you can pause it). For the brave moviegoers, bring snacks! This has just hit cinemas on June 25th.