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Henry V at the Noël Coward theatre

Published 4 December 2013

It is hard to believe that it was almost 18 months ago that Michael Grandage announced his star-studded West End season, which since December last year has brought us critically acclaimed performances from Olivier Award winners and Hollywood legends.

It is even harder to believe that this season of five plays has almost reached its conclusion, as Jude Law turns his talents to an impassioned portrayal of England’s great 15th century monarch for the director’s final production.

The last major production of Henry V was staged at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer, and Grandage’s 2013 revival, which is designed by Christopher Oram, beautifully evokes the curved surround of the Bankside venue.

More flexible and considerably less chilly on this December evening than the Globe, the Noël Coward’s stage is an expanse of worn wooden panels, concealed in which is a series of doors that open and close in order to admit the play’s captivating characters. Oram’s imposing design works seamlessly with Neil Austin’s lighting, which beams intense rays of light on to the stage from inside this multitude of portals.

Of course, it is not Oram’s elaborate design or Austin’s stunning lighting, no matter how effective, that audiences are coming to see. It is the Hollywood star of hit films including Sherlock and Cold Mountain, who returns to the London stage for the first time since his Olivier Award nominated performance in Anna Christie at Grandage’s former haunt, the Donmar Warehouse.

Donning an outfit that isn’t a million miles away from a leather jacket and skinny jeans, Law is at his best here, delivering the king’s inspiring speeches with unfaultable articulation and generous handfuls of passion. Seemingly comfortable in his role as the infamous royal, the power of Law’s performance is most intense during the history play’s ruthless scenes – in which Henry threatens to have babies skewered upon pikes and prisoners murdered – but he balances this callousness with subtle humour during the production’s comedic moments, transforming from merciless war hero to blundering wooer in the final scene with Katharine.

There are compelling performances too from Ashley Zhangazha as the Chorus, who, sporting a Union Jack t-shirt and a rucksack, delivers his lines with a powerful eloquence, cleverly doubling as the Boy who associates with the trio of low-life swashers, and Jessie Buckley as the French princess, who brings wit to the play’s light-hearted scenes. Credit should also be given to Ron Cook and Matt Ryan as Pistol and Fluellen respectively, who add humour to Grandage’s immaculate production with their heated exchanges about the Welsh.

Devoid of festive cheer, the Bard’s powerful portrait of turbulent war is not what everyone wants to see at the theatre this Christmas, but Grandage has created a well-paced production that perfectly crowns his season and has brought compelling drama as well as star names to the West End.

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