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Henry V - Royal and Derngate Review

Shakespeare's Henry V is given a fresh re-telling as the focus turns on the intimacy of the text and performance in Headlong, Shakespeare's Globe and Royal and Derngate's fascinating new staging of the play.

Headlong's Artistic Director Holly Race Roughan directs the production, which is edited and adapted by dramaturg Cordelia Lynn. Their work completely strips back the piece into a intimate study of a leader thrust into leadership as war looms in France and shows him as emotionally unstable person battling responsibility. 

Oliver Johnstone as Henry V. Photo by Ant Robling.

The production opens with a scene from Henry IV Part II in which the dying Henry IV awakens to find his son trying on the crown before his body is cold. This sets the tone for the whole piece. Once the crown his head it's a 'gift' of a tennis ball from the French Dauphin that sets up war as a way of seeking revenge and proving what he capable of.

Throughout the invasion of France and the subsequent battles we see multiple layers to Henry but it's the striking scene as peace is made and he strikes a deal with the French king to court his daughter. This striking scene places Princess Katherine as a shy young girl who is subjected to an unwanted advance from Henry making her a scared victim. It's magnificently played by the two actors.

At the core of the production is an outstanding Oliver Johnstone as Henry. Johnstone brings layers of complexity to the role. In the brutality of the role and the battles he can be hysterical and emotional but through the mercy, the King shows he isn't afraid to be ruthless when required to. The delivery of the "once more into the breach" speech he performs as a soliloquy crouched down on an empty stage, it feels more like a rally cry to himself than to any army of soldiers. 

An excellent supporting cast of 9 play multiple roles with the beginning of each new scene characters telling us it's a new scene and which character they are. This at times gives a feel we're watching an open dress rehearsal especially as the costumes remain pretty much the same throughout even as actors switch characters. 

The company of Henry V. Photo by Ant Robling.

Designer Moi Tran focuses on minimalism as the stage is fairly bare bar a huge lime green curtain and floor and 10 green chairs. As Tran explains her design is aimed to explore the "dark entangled history between climate and empire" although that isn't entirely obvious when watching the performance. Having this fairly plain design helps in drawing you into the performances.

This new production is certainly bold and for the most part it is excellent, with only a few moments where it loses its way including the final scene which I'm not quite sure worked although it does draw some laughs. It's study of a troubled mind is fascinating as is Johnstone's magnificent portrayal of the role. An intimate and compelling staging.

Rating: ★★★★

Henry V plays at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 18th March 2023 with tickets available from

Oliver Johnstone as Henry V. Photo by Ant Robling.

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