As a Shakespeare play lends itself to a variety
of interpretations, why not an anti-heroic Henry V? This
modern dress production at the National Theatre by new artistic
director Nicholas Hytner emphasizes the seamy side of war as found
in the text, although Henry’s “star of England” quality seems
lacking here when he is cut down to size. Adrian Lester’s Henry
goes from soft-spoken and dubious of the arcane reasons for going
to war (some will see a parallel) to enraged shouting of the “once
more into the breach” passage, maybe with the idea that he must
anger his unimpressed soldiers to make them fight.
The many imaginative and effective touches
in this updated version include a television crew on hand in the
battle scenes. A CNN-type large-screen closeup of Henry warning
the citizens of Harfleur has subtitles in French, as it is watched
by the French king. A tape played on the same screen shows Falstaff
playacting the king in the tavern scene from “Henry IV Part 1,”
a reminder of Henry’s earlier wild days. The battles are
impressively staged, although it is jarring to see Henry himself
shoot his old follower Nym in the head instead of giving the order
for his death for church robbing. With the soldiers and
Henry wearing the battle dress of the Iraq war seen daily on television,
the play’s relevancy hits home.
To sound colloquial, the spoken verse too often
sacrifices rhythm, so that the scenes in prose come off best.
The three rogue soldiers, Pistol (Jude Akuwudike) Nym (Robert
Horwell) and Bardolph (David Kennedy) convincingly present the
seamy side of war, and Cecilia Noble as Mistress Quickly combines
sympathy with unintentional comic interpolations as she reports
the sad news of Falstaff’s death. Likewise, in another prose
scene, Mr. Lester is at his best in wooing the disdainful French
Princess Catherine (Felicite du Jeu). Chorus and two of
the French characters give the verse its due, and the rhythm and
clarity of their speeches make them a pleasure to hear – cardiganed
Penny Downie as Chorus, Rohan Siva as Montjoy, the French Herald,
and William Gaunt as the Duke of Burgundy, with a moving lament
about the state of the war-torn French landscape and its people.
While Mr. Hytner demonstrates how to approach
a modern dress “Henry V,” the New York Shakespeare Festival in
Central Park illustrates the pitfalls. In the title role,
Liev Schreiber again reveals his talent at interpreting the Bard
and his understanding of the verse and how it should be spoken.
This portrayal adds to his impressive gallery, which includes
Hamlet, Iachimo, and Iago. However, as directed by
Mark Wing-Davey, the production is overladen with gimmicks.
The opening scene, also in business suits like the London production,
uses a metal ladder for the corporate table, with accompanying
charts and maps to explain convoluted laws of succession as justification
for going to war. When the French officers brag about their horses,
which Shakespeare describes, Chorus having asked us to “think…
that you see them,” Mr. Wing-Davey, not trusting our imaginations,
presents bare-chested, snorting young men imitating steeds.
Evidently equating nudity with modern times, the director also
places the French courtiers around a swimming pool, and the French
princess in a shower, naked. Mark Wendland’s set incorporates
gilt chairs, piles of old newspapers, and a metal catwalk, while
Gabriel Berry’s costumes are a hodgepodge of periods.