This review was originally written for West End Frame
How apt that Henry V is being staged at the same time as the EU Referendum. How fitting that Shakespeare is searching for the soul of England at Regents Park Open Air Theatre while the nation is busy throwing it away at the polling stations. How disappointing it is that Robert Hastie’s production, which casts Michelle Terry in the title role, doesn’t make anywhere near enough of this timeliness as it should.
Hastie’s production begins enticingly, with Charlotte Cornwell’s Chorus proffering Henry’s crown not to any of the preening males in the ensemble, but to a meekly thankful Terry instead. It’s a neat device that elegantly sidesteps any objections to Terry’s unconventional casting by placing emphasis on Shakespeare’s own opening plea to the audience to rely upon their imaginations. “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” indeed.
Sadly, aside from a visceral depiction of the siege of Harfleur – deafening gunfire, visibly terrified soldiers and a stomach-churning mix of mud, sweat and bile combine in an ugly cocktail strongly evocative of Omaha beach – Hastie’s direction fails to live up to this promising start. Court scenes plod along ceremonially, Agincourt is woefully misconceived as a cringe-worthy contemporary dance, and Henry’s inept wooing of Ben Wiggins’ Katherine – usually the comic highpoint of the play – lacks any sparkle whatsoever.
Terry’s Henry quickly transforms into a ruthless, ferocious war general and entirely overlooks the nuances of the character; this should be Prince Hal grown up, still wrestling with the hedonism of his past and the fresh burden of the throne, not some dead-eyed, humourless dictator coldly pushing his soldiers towards certain death. Terry delivers the Harfleur speech with rousing vigour amid a maelstrom of smoke and shell-fire, but criminally underplays the St Crispin’s Day address and, although she does include just the right amount of bluster throughout to make the audience question the war’s integrity, hers is not a memorable Henry.
Like Oliver Ford-Davies’ in the Gregory Doran’s recent production for the RSC, Cornwell’s Chorus is a shuffling, scarf-clad history buff, exhorting the audience to cram the ‘vasty fields of France’ into the ‘wooden O’ of the Open Air Theatre with all the charisma of a substitute teacher. But there are good performances elsewhere. Alex Bhat enjoyably over-eggs his Dauphin, turning him into a boisterous, blustering Bullingdon Club brat; Philip Arditti is an appropriately wheedling Pistol; and Bobby Delaney shines as a cynical Scouse soldier.
Henry V is an infinitely rich play, thrilling, thought-provoking, and funny in equal measure. Hastie’s version is none of these things. For all the promise of its unconventional casting, the raw potential of the Open Air Theatre, and the aptness of a play analysing England’s relationship with Europe as the nation simultaneously does the same, it really falls quite flat.