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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Max Webster, Designer Fly Davis, Lighting Designer Lee Curran, Sound Designer Carolyn Downing, Movement Director Benoit Swan Pouffer, Video Designer Andrej Goulding, Music Andrew T Mackay, Casting Director Anna Cooper CDG.

Production Manager Anthony Newton, Costume Supervisor Lisa Aitkin, Military Consultant Tom Leigh, Fight Director Kate Waters, Props Supervisor Lizzie Frankl for Propworks, Voice Coach Barbara Houseman, Dialect Coaches Fabien Enjalric, Majella Hurley.

Broadcast Team Rhodri Huw, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Director Carol Sadler, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Stephanie Rose.

International Release June 2nd.


Recalling his contemporary dress Doctor Faustus from 2016 (uneven but underrated), it seemed likely Kit Harington’s Henry V at the Donmar would be contemporary too.

It suits his lean handling of blank verse and – here – subtle twist to psychosis in Max Webster’s reading, though Harington’s been flexing at this part for years.

A reflective king – woken at the start from strobe-shot dreams of Hal in scenes from Henry IV Parts 2, 1 and 2 again – he sheds dignity till the raw madcap he was struts regnant once more. But shredded, brutalised, this Hal’s grown up dead. Where the careful monologues before battle and the nailing Harfleur and Crispin’s Day speeches give on to a war crime; which Shakespeare through Steven Meo’s wiry, wily Llewllyn doesn’t hold back from naming.

However Llewllyn admires his fellow Welshman, he suggests murderous parallels with Alexander who killed his friend: he knows Henry had just seen one hanged too. Fittingly Meo’s a brief Falstaff in those Henry IV party flashbacks: subtle, critical kinship is just one subtext you might miss in the blare of this production; but it’s all there. Even back in Prince Harry dress Harington’s predatory.

Contemporary dress. There’s a rub or two. Shakespeare has an uncanny knack of speaking to our condition, but this time it’s flinchingly close. The surrender of cities like Harfleur, killing of hostages (viciously featured here) and forced marriage on French Kate (Anoushka Lucas, frozen from dignity to trauma as the inner Hal forces his kiss) as well as sudden switches to battle, speak of Ukraine more forcibly with each week. By the end of its run this Henry V seems too overwhelming. As it should be.

The overwhelm’s also down to the design team around Fly Davis. A back-screen serving as a monumental slab then – with video designer Andrej Goulding – projected with everything from lineage (dispatching that tedious Salic line casuistry, but Harington keels over anyway) through to stark trees, faces of women – Harfleur, haunting now – and iconography. Davis unleashes a gantry as bridge, and behind the parting screen sudden runs of fire and other effects.

And that gantry’s used to visceral effect as Claire-Louise Cordwell’s truculent Bardolph is hanged at the interval. Lee Curran’s lighting gives depth to a tiny space: blood reds, chiaroscuro, the wan light of day.

Harington’s reading is ambiguous too. Does he harden and snap?  His monologues suggest a different man before the battle, even after Bardolph. But there’s a proleptic hang-Bardolph moment early on, when Henry unusually hugs one of the three traitors at Southampton  – Joanna  Songi’s Scroop – in an embrace proving they were indeed ‘bedfellows’; then pronounces her death.

And even here Henry’s amicable words to Seumas Begg’s gnarled Gloucester are undermined: he casually tosses back Gloucester’s coat to him after a night as a little touch. A mirror scene post-battle has them both near to tears over York’s and Suffolk’s deaths.

And there’s the Richard II-like moment when Harington sits on the ground and talks of the death of soldiers with soldiers, a humility touching the ‘God be thanked’ moment, itself guyed by a whoop. It begs questions.

Harington and Webster, highlighting Hal’s doubleness with flashbacks, prove it’s still his DNA. It’s different to say Alan Howard’s classic 1975 RSC Hal, where throughout Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, his soft fabric gets replaced by armour till he’s encased in gold, ready to be fifth of that name.

Certainly experience of battle warps this Henry: his victory whoop is visceral, animal, cathartic. It jars with the ‘not we but God’ routine seconds later, but again Harington suggests such states sit side by side with reflecting on kingship; where personally slitting the throat of one prisoner (like Bardolph, squirming in death-kicks) comes shortly before dealing generously with Melissa Johns’ antagonistic soldier Williams. Though here Williams is terrified then resentful on learning the truth.

That doubleness again, though it fights the text on occasion; if Shakespeare lets Harry off with pietistic slippage, this production won’t.  Persuasive, if not the whole truth.

The tone’s set with Millicent Wong’s gamine, arch Chorus and Boy: a raised eyebrow with every adjective. Bitterness and premonition seep through. The Chorus’s last words are repeated in a litany of ‘our/my/your England bleed’. It’s a slap to nationalism. Danny Kirrane’s mouthy, massy Pistol, bare-chested wrapping himself in the England flag in a post-Agincourt rave echoing Hal’s dreams leaves us in no doubt. A rave’s just the way to make up for having to kill your wealthy prisoner (a terrified Cordwell).

Kirrane’s Pistol centres the tavern scenes, Falstaffian with fleer and braggadocio, with Cordwell’s brokering Bardolph, Johns’ fearful, tender Quickly (also a querulous Macmorris), and David Judge’s neuro-diverse Nym – he’s also an aquiline Mountjoy, subtle in sneering. Webster’s production takes time to register loss. As Nym says ‘there’s the truth of it’.

There’s unnecessary translations though, meaning we’re squinting at text, not acting. Slivers of Welsh and Mandarin too. Shakespeare’s fun French is augmented with far more than the boxing/coaching between Lucas’ witty but aristocratic Kate and Songi’s unnamed tutor (this culture armours women, echoed in the kiss-fight scene with Harington).

So Kate Duchene’s stoic Constable of France, Oliver Huband’s finger-snapping playboy Dauphin, Adam Maxey’s equine-snorting Orleans banter in blue light. And you might miss some of this. There’s more with Jude Akuwudike’s superb King of France, the only character palpably weighing cost. He’s an adamantine Archbishop too, full of Salic casuistry.

It’s Akuwudike’s and Wong’s characters who cipher the sting and gall of it. The grime of Donmar’s sanded floor and fatigues gives to graphite suits with surrender terms. The cast multi-role in glinting vignettes. In this fug you need to concentrate with three plus hours with interval.

And that’s not easy in the punishing swing of battle to parley. Rarely if ever has the Donmar seen such a Shakespearean production: like an Olivier one scrunched. Another trio – military consultant Tom Leigh, fight director Kate Waters and movement director Benoit Swan Pouffer, produce drilled yet fluid battle scenes, where dance turns to a rictus of killing and flung-down bodies.

Costume supervisor Lisa Aitkin deserves special mention for the obscene dazzle of corporate suit, regalia and battle fatigues. Cordwell’s Bates and Johns’ Williams dispute the point of this to dead soldiers before Harington. You think of other diplomatic suits: smoothed-down annexation terms on a shattered country, a takeover.

Carolyn Downing’s war sound envelope lends amplitude to Andrew T Mackay’s composition, which plays with Monteverdi’s Toccata from Orfeo/Vespers (Marienella Phillips’ mezzo spellbinding here), the medieval L’Homme Armé song is naturally snatched, and Dowland’s ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’ (Begg’s tenor, night before battle) spans back to Shakespeare. More unexpected is bass baritone Maxey singing a Nyman-spiked Purcell frozen-song from King Arthur. Full of the ostinato rhythm of shock, it’s a trembling mimesis of PTSD.

The broadcast team – as Harington confirms – produce a filmic sweep that couldn’t be bettered for its equal refusal to remove the Donmar’s tight theatricality. The audience are very occasionally on show too. But angles, pans and steadiness contrast superbly with impact elsewhere.

Full as it is, this Henry V isn’t the whole truth about Hal, Harry or Henry. But it’s the most detailed reading we’ve seen for years. Harington’s magnificent, refusing to smooth his jarring-points. Jude Law’s 2014 performance, full of steel and patience, was deeply impressive; but even that outing pales beside Webster’s production values, detailing every character, every scene. There’s Jamie Parker’s thrillingly broad-veined front from 2013 at the Globe, though necessarily more populist. And Tom Hiddleston’s excellent Hollow Crown rendition is a fine-grained, if abridged affair. It’s good the Donmar’s caught on NT Live film. Traumatic as it can be to watch, and quibbles aside, it’s the definitive Henry V of our time.