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Henry V review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘pedestrian’

Alex Hassell in Henry V at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Keith Pattison Alex Hassell in Henry V at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Keith Pattison
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It is difficult to go wrong with Henry V, the nimblest of Shakespeare’s history plays. It can be interpreted either as a patriotic call to arms to the good yeomen of England or an indictment of territorial inheritance. As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s cycle of history plays King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings – a kind of riposte to John Barton’s Wars of the Roses cycle recently revived at The Rose, Kingston – Gregory Doran’s production falls between two joint-stools. It is one of the most sluggish productions of the play I have seen in years, including Michael Grandage’s pitiful production with Jude Law in 2013. The oddly disconnected design offers little in the way of atmosphere or location, save for an effective photo-cathedral backdrop and a steel wall that rises and falls with a grinding clank. Tim Mitchell’s lighting rarely gets beyond murky mode.

As Henry, Alex Hassell bears an unfortunate resemblance to Gareth Gates and is vocally weak; while he is fine in the more intimate moments he tends to squeak when expressing anger. The big speeches are consequently lost in a naturalistic compromise that neither stir the heart nor penetrate the mind.

There are compensations, notably Oliver Ford Davies’ grumpy headmaster Chorus and Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who locates the humour in the clergyman’s pedantry. I enjoyed, too, Jennifer Kirby’s spoilt little minx of a Katherine and Martin Bassindale’s Boy, one of the few characters who actually moved me.

Gregory Doran’s flat-footed direction does little to illuminate the play’s themes of political expediency, the responsibility of royal blood and Britain’s combative pan-tribalism in spite of sterling efforts of Joshua Richards’ Welsh windbag Fluellen. But a handful of amusing moments do not add up to the right stuff.

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