Barbican Theatre, London EC4
Opened 22 March, 2001

Critical reception of Edward Hall's RSC production of Henry V on its Stratford première last year was more or less evenly divided between those who felt the diverse, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink staging was overcome by a unifying power in performance, and vice versa. Seeing it for the first time on its transfer to the Barbican, I declare myself firmly in the former camp.

Hall fils has retained and developed some of the staging ideas from his 1997 production of the same play at the much smaller Watermill Theatre outside Newbury. Fighting takes place with long-handled police batons (or, in the case of Welsh captain Fluellen, a huge, crude cudgel), with the addition that the leaders of the French force now look on the fetishistic side in rubber riot-police armour; as previously the English force sang (curiously) The Pogues' song "A Pair Of Brown Eyes", so this time the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, has been commissioned to write a clutch of songs more finely toned than the bawled "Eng-er-lund!" refrain might suggest. Elsewhere, Hall's notions run away with him: why on earth does Princess Katharine of France seem to be entertaining the French troops with a rendition of "La Vie En Rose", and why does she climb into her full crinolined gown in front of this mob clad in modern-day fatigues? Elsewhere still, ideas come together brilliantly: the "ramparts" of the Barbican Theatre's gallery become those of the besieged Harfleur, with scaling ladders erected against them, and under Ian Spink's movement direction a magnificent ensemble-mimed landing craft seems to sail across the stage.

There is much to cause distraction, to be sure, but even more to hold the attention throughout, central among which is William Houston's phenomenal performance in the title role. He is at every moment deliberate, commanding, a Prince Hal who has assiduously set about meeting the demands of kingship and done so with outstanding success; if there is a fault, it is that even at the moment where we supposedly see King Harry with his guard down and beset with doubts, in the "Upon the King" soliloquy, Houston's rich, resonant voice continues to sound less than spontaneous. Elsewhere, Adrian Schiller's Fluellen is a joy; the Eastcheap contingent combine humour and disquiet as war parasites (with Joe Renton's Nym in his Newcastle Utd shirt not just a member of the English army but of the Toon Army), and Sandra Voe's speech as Mistress Quickly on the death of Falstaff is a wonderfully affecting reversal of mood amid a raucous wedding. Hall approaches the play as an examination not just of the meanings of Englishness or Britishness, but of nationhood in general; more to the point, he approaches it principally as a stirring evening, if on the long side at three and a half hours.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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