Glass reviews Henry V by The Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre

There’s nothing like an epic Shakespeare play performed skilfully in a stunning venue to warm your bones and heart on a chilly evening in December. Part of the King and Country cycle, director Gregory Doran’s simple, effective and deeply thoughtful production of Henry V at the The Barbican, London sheds light on the culture of war and its psychological effect of those dragged into the proceedings.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171413The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V. Photograph: Keith Pattison @RSC

The sparse, unpretentious set resembles the interior of a lofty cathedral, allowing for the cast to step up into huge roles and responsibilities, particularly Henry, played subtly and intelligently by Alex Hassell. The play itself is full of uncertainties, as we follow Henry’s voyage from boy to man, beginning with his unconfident early days as King, to the climax at the Battle of Agincourt, where we see him grow in self-assurance and maturity.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171527Alex Hassell as Henry V. Photograph: Keith Pattison @RSC

Hassell masterfully captures a real childlike insecurity in Henry’s opening scenes, appearing juvenile and anxious but masking his weakness with bombastic bravado and wit. Hassell has a real gift for inviting the audience in, which can be difficult when performing end on. He rallies us as if we were his troops and at other points, we play the French during battle. He looks to the audience for reassurance and we fall for his loveable charms as he exposes a very human side to Henry and reveals the relentless pressures of being King.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171425Alex Hassell. Photograph: Keith Pattison @RSC

Undoubtedly, the comic relief from Pistol (Antony Byrne) and Nym (Christopher Middleton) is much needed in between lengthy monologues and logistical battle debates. Special mention must also go to the charming interchange between the Welshman, Scotsman and Irishmen who had the audience in stitches. Similarly, Oliver Ford Davis as Chorus is a master in creating tension and picking up the pace in some of the wordier parts of the play.

The energy really ramped up in the second half, a particular highlight being the delightful scene between Princess Katherine and her dressers. Jennifer Kirby’s Katherine is playful and witty and charmed the audience with her ridiculous French pronunciation of English body parts. This beautifully choreographed light-hearted scene lifted the play, as the audience prepared to witness the final battle.

Henry_V_production_photos_2015_2015_Photo_by_Keith_Pattison_c_RSC_171474The RSC’s Henry V at the Barbian. Photograph: Keith Pattison @RSC

Doran’s postmodern production reminds us that this is play about the politics and intricacies of war, not about triumph or patriotism. It examines Henry’s notion of kingship and his frustration trying to do well by his late father and more importantly, by his God. We witness the great challenges facing Henry as he is forced to abandon his rebellious youth and unite his country.

by Heather Doughty

Photographs: Keith Pattison @RSC

Henry V runs at the Barbican, London until 30 December
Tel: 020 7638 8891