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Review: RSC's King and Country cycle - Henry V, Barbican

Alex Hassell as Henry V. Photo by Alastair Muir

Over three days I watched the landscape that would form Henry V taking shape; the prince not born to be King but thrown into it by his father's deposing of Richard II. His petulant years as the party prince rebelling against this unexpected, unlooked for responsibility, rebelling and yet not quite relinquishing the need to make his father proud. It is an inner battle fought through Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and at the beginning of Henry V we see the new King (Alex Hassell) resolved to his new found responsibility, determined if a little scared and a little nervous. 

This final play in the tetralogy watched back to back, is his journey from infamous youth to warrior and clever politician. When Henry successfully puts down a plot to murder him you see him grow a little in confidence. He needs it for the path ahead when he has to play politics with the French King and make life and death decisions for his former friends and for 1,000 of soldiers.

Before the play begins the stage is lit so that you can see all the backstage areas, the props and bits of sets to be used later. You hear the actors being called to the stage. It is a contemporary start to a history play and yet it is how Shakespeare intended, a way of getting the audience to use their imagination for the trips to France and epic battles that are to come.

Oliver Ford Davis in casual 21st Century clothes - a cardie and scarf - has a slightly wry tone to his lines as Chorus which serve to move the action forward, set the scene and sometimes develop the drama.

Some of the commoner friends from Henry's party prince days are enlisted, serving to show past and present coming together but also how it has made him a different King. His father was courteous to the common people, which Richard mocked, but Henry V knows these people, he's lived among them which makes his decisions about war all the more difficult. Richard would never have disguised himself to walk among his troops to hear what they were saying and neither would his father.What he hears helps him to rally his army when faced with unfavourable battle odds. He throws himself into the sweat, dirt and blood of battle unlike his French counterparts who preen around with pristine armour and feathers in their helmets.

The humour comes once again from the common people and the stereotypical portrayal of Welsh, Irish and Scots soldiers - the latter being incomprehensible. In the end it is Henry's wooing of the French princess that shows his maturity while retaining that youthful playfulness  we've come to love and you can't help but smile. He did it; it was a funny, emotional and sometimes difficult journey but he became a worthy King. Well done Alex and well done the RSC, it's been epic.

Henry V gets five stars from me, it is approximately three hours long with an interval and runs in rep at the Barbican until Jan 23 before going on a world tour.

Related posts:

History cycle reviews for Richard II and Henry IV parts 1 and 2

Richard II Q&A with David Tennant and Jonathan Slinger

Ten favourite things about the RSC's history cycle