Review: Cry God For Harry At The Barbican

Henry V at the Barbican Theatre ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 38 months ago
Review: Cry God For Harry At The Barbican Henry V at the Barbican Theatre 4
Alex Hassell as Henry V in Gregory Doran's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company © Keith Pattison / RSC

One of the notable features of Shakespeare’s Henry V is the use of a one-man chorus that invites us to forget we are in a humble theatre, and to imagine we really are in the palaces of the mighty or on the battlefields of France. This Royal Shakespeare Company production, now appearing in London, takes this aspect very seriously and pursues the idea of the theatricality of the occasion in an intelligent yet understated manner.

The chorus is played by a man (Oliver Ford Davies) in modern dress, which works because it stands to reason that the person inviting us to be carried away should come from our own world. Here, he might even be the play’s director (who in reality is Gregory Doran) as he has a slight tussle with Henry V at the start over which of them should hold the crown. The evocative and far from literal staging always shows how we are being invited to imagine scenarios by alluding to grand architectural structures through projections and backdrops. Similarly, battle scenes are rendered by providing vignettes onto individual encounters, interspersed with a few powerful effects.

One unfortunate by-product of the decision to emphasise the theatricality of the play is that we become more acutely aware than usual that certain scenes such as those involving the ‘lowlife’ characters are, in a sense, set pieces. This can make it just a little harder to engage with the characters and arguments contained within them. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly an atmospheric and quality staging, and the use of two balconies that sport stringed curtains proves particularly effective. These turn golden under the lighting, and help to ensure that the production survives the transition from Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre to a proscenium stage very well.

The cast is strong, and Alex Hassell excels in the title role. His Henry is not effortlessly charismatic, spiritual or powerful and this proves to be all to the good. Hassell shows how the King is ultimately a human being who is always vulnerable and must work hard to project an image and stamp out his authority. This does not mean he does not see war with France as a moral and religious duty, or that he is entirely lacking in compassion, but one senses that his decisions to show mercy or otherwise derive from highly rational calculations as to the wider consequences of each course of action. He also shows Henry to be a multi-faceted character as he reveals his respect (in the end) towards the soldier Williams for speaking his mind, his remorse at how many French were laid waste on the battlefield, and both his sincerity and humour as he tries to woo the King of France’s daughter Katherine for himself.  

Until 30 December 2015 at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS. Tickets (£10-£75): 020 7638 8891 or visit the Barbican Theatre website. Henry V will also be shown alongside Richard II and Henry IV Parts I and II between 12-24 January 2016 when tickets will only be sold for all four plays together. For further information visit the King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings page on the Barbican website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket. 

Last Updated 15 November 2015