7 December 2013

Henry V at the Noel Coward theatre

Most of my theatregoing is booked just a week or two in advance, some even less than that, but I booked this one about eighteen months ago. It was part of the season the included A Midsummer Night's Dream which I saw in September.

The attraction was the same in both cases, they were Shakespeare plays that I was not very familiar with staring actors that I respected. Jude Law had been magnificent in Anna Christie two years ago so I was keen to see him on stage again.

My knowledge of Shakespeare's history plays was much less than that for the "mainstream" dramas and there were many that I had not seen before, including Henry V. The Richard III that I had seen was brilliant so I was hopeful for this.

My knowledge of English history of that period was comparable to that of the plays about it so I was not too sure what to expect other than I thought that Henry V was one of the good guys (from an English perspective, the French may have different views).

The one thing that I did know was that my prompt booking had secured me a front-row seat in the Grand Circle.

I found Henry V (the play) to be an odd mix of historical propaganda, nice guy leads his men well and beats the French, and character humour in which a Welshman says "Look you" repeatedly.

Henry V admitted to being a play from the very start when the narrator asked us to imagine the many soldiers and horses in the riotous battles that we were about to hear about. A good excuse for keeping the set simple and the cast small.

The play tells us of Herny V's accession to the throne, his previous high-life and his transformation to a proper king which is confirmed by his victory over the French at Agincourt (which Shakespeare pronounces with a hard "t" at the end while we, ironically, now use the French pronunciation).

There are two barn-storming scenes which feature the famous lines, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" and "And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day." That apart, there was little for Jude Law to get his teeth in to.

I can see why Henry V is not performed very often. It is a light play with simple characters and a simpler story. Putting somebody like Jude Law in the play was a waste of his talents.

The cynic inside me says that the thinking behind this season is to use high-profile stars to attracts big audiences and to paper over the cracks in the plays and the productions. I enjoyed Henry V, and A Midsummer Night's Dream before it, but I left thinking that it should have been better than that.

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