Henry V opens with a burst of energy at a nightclub with a worse for wear party prince. It's a scene lifted from Henry IV part 2 and is an important reminder of Henry V's past and subsequent transformation into a serious king.
It is a great scene-setter for this modern-dress production and a performance of Henry that leaves the lines blurred between heroic and ruthless leader.
One of the first things we see the new king decide is whether to go to war with France. His claim to the French throne is explained by a Bishop, with the help of a family tree projected on the stage's back wall.
There is a satirical note in the way the hereditary links are drawn. However, it is Kit Harington's controlled switch in tone when addressing the French ambassador after being insulted, which is the first glimpse of Henry's character as king.
He is angry but sparing, there is no chewing the scenery, and yet it magnifies his power and presence even when he isn't on stage.
His divine status is emphasised subtly in choral and operatic pieces sung by members of the cast. The music serves as a reminder of the role the church plays in driving Henry to war with France as well as lending a tragic tone to the story.
In the first half, you see the results of his decisions in putting down plots against him and planning for war, but without soliloquies, you are left to make up your own mind as to his motivations. In the second half, he is more the hands-on leader at turns benevolent while at others without mercy or conscience.
Neither persona marry's with the party prince seen at the start of the play. It is a different sort of selfishness. Is this what we need our leaders to be?
The staging is simple; three stepped levels, gold in colour, which emphasises royalty. Later one level will be removed and the stage covered in 'dirt', a reminder perhaps that there is nothing regal about war; death is the great leveller.
In fact, it is the presence throughout of common soldiers, some of whom are Henry's former party friends, which emphasises the sacrifice and real casualty of war.
Weighing up the cost of war
At the end, when the Chorus (Milicent Wong) explains all that will be lost by Henry's son, it is tinged with irony. Was it ultimately worth it?
As well as the costumes, there are some additional nice modern touches. Gender blind casting sees women fighting alongside men, and Princess Catharine is having boxing lessons when she is being taught the English words for different parts of the body.
The fact that the French characters speak French (with English subtitles) works well to emphasise the 'otherness' of the people the English are fighting and the humour in the language barrier.
This is a powerful production of Henry V. Harington's nuanced, often quiet and considered Henry V perfectly highlights the complexity and often contradictory nature of the character and the role of leadership. I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Henry V, Donmar Warehouse
Directed by Max Webster
Running time: 3 hours, including an interval
Booking until 9 April, for more details and tickets, head to the Donmar Warehouse website.
Covid safety: Mask wearing throughout the building and auditorium, which is reinforced through signs and notifications from the front of house staff. Almost 100% compliance.
More stuff I've seen Kit Harington in:
True West, Vaudeville Theatre: Quick-fire dialogue and comic timing
Dr Faustus, Duke of York's Theatre re-review: Has Kit Harington's performance blossomed?
And more Henry V on stage:
I've also seen a handful of Henry V's on screen (big and small), most recently Timothée Chalamet's portrayal in The King and, prior to that, Tom Hiddleston's for the BBC. Both of which I loved.
Do you have a favourite Henry V?