Review of ‘Henry V’: “Self-love is not so vile a sin”

Shakespeare’s last installment on this epic tale about power thirst and human corruption returns to the Globe’s boards, in a new version featuring additional tweaks and scenes to the original work. Guillermo Názara reviews this reimagined production of one of the playwright’s most striking dramas, to let us know if the bard’s immortal spirit has been buried onstage.

Evil always stems from good. Or so they’d want us to think. Believe it or not, humanity’s most embarrassing, gruesome episodes base their origins on that “noble cause” blood is worth spilling for. It doesn’t matter if it’s today (it can either be Ukraine or the bile streaming free on social media) or a thousand years ago – mankind, just as history, has a way of repeating itself despite its apparent change. We may reject it, we may embrace it, but there are some stains in our nature that just can’t simply be erased. And however virtuous we may try to present ourselves, our own selfishness and greed keep paving the tempting path to that now demonized yet still much desired word: privilege.

If Shakespeare is still regarded as one of the strongest giants in the theatre is not due to his ability with the English language (that’s only the reason why he’ll probably crown the top of Literature probably for all eternity), it’s because his cunning skill at unveiling the (pretty or ugly) secrets of the soul through intoxicating beauty and heart-gripping interest, while always preserving credibility. Henry V might be summarised to the untrained eye and the shallow ear as the story of a revengeful king doing whatever it takes to fulfill his thirst for dominion. But this is no tale of royals or a battlefields, this is a tale of the everyman and those who are all alike, facing the corruption of their will not through power, but their vanity of their own desire.

The foggy bleakness of the season looks like the perfect preshow for a play dealing with the obscurity of personal carnage. But despite the seemingly tragic, crude tone the plot implies, this version steps more on the undefined line between cry and laughter. Directed by Holly Race Roughan, the adaptation (as it features a dramaturg credit to Cordeli Lynn) does exude the roughness of such a political drama (sometimes to the point of delightful uncomfortability), but swings to the land of comedy with rapid movement, sometimes getting into a slightly spoofy mood. Would the bard have approved of it? It’s hard to tell, as it’s not less true that if something the audience of the time were well educated at was in getting drunk.

Credit: JOHAN PERSSON

Starting with a table read-style blocking (most probably an homage to Trevor Nunn’s stunning televised late 70s version of the Scottish play -you know, just in case…-), the use of the stage space is surely the loudest shoutout of the entire creative effort, as the seamless transitions (occassionally leading to unexpected and much surprising revelations) and the suggested but very effective depiction of complex gianormous scenarios in a limited space work effortlessly. A similar praise goes also to the production’s score. Featuring period instruments (the actors however wearing present-day clothing), it’s the brilliant narrative use it’s given, working as a team member than enhances instead of foreshadowing the action, that makes it worth the mention. But there are flaws, nonetheless, most of them having to do with the additions that have been incorporated – as not only do they lack cohesiveness with regards to the original source material, but also seem quite unnecessary (especially the last scene, which fails to give enough conclusion to the piece too). Shakespeare, after all, knew his craft well. And even though I agree that the theatre is an ever-living creature, we must let the author be the author.

As for the cast, most of the company excell, of course, in their acting (otherwise I wouldn’t be using that verb) but also their sensitive and committed delivery of the bard’s verses. The intoxicating, seductive allure of his phrases (capable of besotting even the coldest of minds -as long as there is a brain controlling them-) invades the room in an thunderous yet gently touching blast. From the whole troupe, Oliver Johnstone in the role of Henry V earns the crown (no pun intended) for his mischievous fiendish yet somehow sympathetic rendition of the obsessive king. On his side, Helen Lumbery also stands out in her cross-gender portrayal of Henry IV (the switch occurring to only the performer), especially for the edginess and uncanny take put to the character.

After more than 400 years of this play being around, it would not be fair too purist when it comes to reviewing a version taking place in a (in principle) much different society – but that wouldn’t mean accepting a full makeover on a classic until it’s not a classic anymore. ‘Tis not the case, anyway. I may have not enjoyed the ending, but the overall journey (the first act of this performance primarily) is all in all a well executed work. And it’s also likely it may trigger unfamiliarised audiences to sink their teeth into a more substantious bite.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Henry V plays at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Sam Wannamaker Playhouse until 4 February. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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