A timeless – or should that be conservative – production

Henry V – Noel Coward Theatrebooking until 15 February 2014

So the Michael Grandage season draws to a close with Henry V; one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and one that sees Grandage reunite with Jude Law following their Hamlet in 2009, itself a reminder of Law’s theatrical qualities – something that always feels at risk of being buried among the dead weight of his often mediocre Hollywood movies.

The cinema is a useful starting point for Henry V and possibly one reason why Jude Law was approached for the role, because the play itself is one that feels strangely uncomfortably suited to the stage and its ongoing Jude Law in Henry V, Noel Coward Theatrepopularity is perhaps more due to the rousing film versions of Olivier, Branagh and, more recently, Tom Hiddleston.

The main difficulty of staging Henry V lies in the fact that a large proportion of the plot is set directly in, and around, live battles. Fight scenes (between armies rather than individuals) are very difficult to recreate convincingly on stage.

The playwright or director is left with two choice; to attempt to find a way of portraying the battle on stage, something that is fraught with difficulty and which rarely emerges coherently or providing any sense of the brutality and terror of war, or to stage the battle offstage and intercut with appropriate scenes. Choosing the second option, as Shakespeare creates a problem in that the audience is always aware that the real excitement is happening elsewhere and it is a struggle to maintain focus.

Film has the advantage of having it both ways; jump-cuts can propel the action without the need for laborious changes of scene, the bewilderingly frenetic action of a medieval battle at ground level can be interweaved with a top-down view that allows the viewer to pick up the rhythm and flow of a wider military operation in progress. The editing room also allows for the surging music to flow through the veins and for the hero to be heard amidst the clamour of war.

The ability of this to manipulate the audience is abundantly clear in the music that underpins the fairly basic structure of Branagh’s St Crispin’s Day speech and amongst the pomp and pageantry captured in the Olivier’s classic version of 1944; two scenes that must rank amongst the most watched of any recorded Shakespeare.

And

The legend of Henry V, be it the battle of Agincourt or Shakespeare’s note that tells of ‘ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain’ against the English ‘Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk /Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:/ None else of name; and of all other men / But five and twenty’ [IV.viii], has laid deep roots in what it means to be English and serves to reinforce the enduring myth of the noble island standing up in the face of overwhelming odds to foreign foes.

Shakespeare’s quill is capable of casting long shadows over England’s history. The rehabilitation of Richard III is still a work in progress and Henry VI has no real place in our history following the magnificently succinct dismissal of his legacy in just four lines at the very end of Henry V: ‘Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King / Of France and England, did this king succeed; / Whose state so many had the managing, / That they lost France and made his England bleed’ [V.V]  

So Henry V, with its multi-purpose king who is at home walking among the common man and issuing rousing speeches to inspire the troops as he is seducing French princesses and charming ambassadors, was always likely to chime with the public. He may as well have come straight out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, lending a helping hand to Arthur as he attempts to pull Excalibur out of a handily placed stone.

Yet for all of this Henry V remains a very curious play, perhaps not in the sense of the grand complexity of King Lear or the later plays, The Tempest and Cymbeline, which play on a strange magical realism at odds with his earlier realism. In comparison Henry V has a plot of the utmost simplicity and which only touches on the psychological depths of his later work. However it is also structured in a way that is oddly obtuse and can test the patience of an unsuspecting audience; it is telling that Frank Kermode spoke of it as a ‘a play that is many respects unloveable but of cunning construction’.

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Radcliffe crippled by burden of expectation

The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theatre, until 31 August (some tickets available)

It is the website that gives it away. Alight on Michael Grandage Company and it is all too clear that this play is less about the ‘Company’ and very much about a certain Daniel Radcliffe. This is not in itself a criticism of Michael Grandage or Daniel Radcliffe. One must swallow the bitter pill of realism when it comes to the financial dynamics of the West End, which is, if you want to stage a play like The Cripple of Inishmaan for 12 weeks in one of the larger theatres of the West End then you must have an ace up your sleeve to get the audiences in.

Daniel Radcliffe is quite an ace, and paired with Martin McDonagh – notably of In Brugges and, rather less notably, Seven Psychopaths fame – the evening is set for quite a potent mix. The problem is that at times it feels that Michael Grandage has been so keen to find an edgy, modern play to entice a young actor looking to mould his career that he has failed to notice that he has chosen one of McDonagh’s weakest plays.

In Brugges had some incredibly dark scenes but was leavened by its acute sense of place and the fish-out-of-water verbal sparring of its two leads. The Lieutenant of Inishmore looks for black comedy and manages to eventually locate it in something the colour of pitch; a breathtakingly offensive yet hilarious play about the troubles of an Irish torturer considered too mad for the IRA.

McDonagh’s first play – The Beauty Queen of Leeane – won four Tony Awards and has a plot that marvellously manages to deceive its audience at every turn. It is rightly revered as a near-classic and a stunning achievement from the then-25 year old. Unfortunately the Young Vic revived it in a celebrated production less than two years ago and there are certainly no Radcliffe-shaped parts in it.

Daniel Radcliffe - STAR (not pictured: other actors)

The Cripple of Inishmaan is not a bad play and it follows McDonagh’s other plays in exploring an Ireland that seems to exist out of time. Eventually it can be placed temporally in the mid-1930’s but realistically it could be anytime from 1780 to 1980. On these rural islands the sense is that life continues much as it has always done; roles are fixed and nicknames determine character rather than other way. The arrival of the film crew on a nearby island is the jolt that throws the island off its axis – it acts as the classic outsider who engenders change on the local and drives the actions of the play.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Cripplebilly – a young man cursed with a limp and a name that he cannot shake. He sees the arrival of a film crew as his chance off the island and Hollywood as a place where his disability can be, if not accepted, at least overlooked.

It is another undeniably smart decision in the post-Potter career for Radcliffe. He deserves a great deal of credit for tackling Equus – a difficult play and a difficult part – and so far he has broadly eschewed the Hollywood-fodder that would seem so tempting. The lead in a reasonably intelligent The Women In Black and acting alongside Jon Hamm in ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ on Sky Arts are the only real mainstream exposure he has received in a post-Potter universe. If the adaptation of Bulgakov’s short stories was a bit of a mixed bag it still represents a remarkably leftfield step for someone with the choice of pretty much any script.

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Peter and Alice and a whole lack of wonder

Peter and Alice – Noel Coward Theatre, until 01 June 2013

It all works so well on paper: Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram as director and set designer; John Logan behind the script; Ben Wishaw and Dame Judi Dench heading the cast. If any more of a hook was needed to guarantee an audience, the plot concerns Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland (or at least their real-life inspirations).

What could possibly go wrong?Peter and Alice - Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench

In some ways very little.

The major problem is that very little goes right.

For the audience, Peter and Alice is an almost pitch-perfect study in the average, the mediocre, the reassuringly dull. No doubt the brigades that travel on mass from the Home Counties, that can afford to sit in the stalls, that buy a programme, a drink and an ice-cream, that keep the West End at near maximum-capacity and that are, without doubt, vital to the on-going vitality of the London theatre scene, are going to be satisfied.

However Charles Dodson and J.M Barrie would be appalled. Not necessarily by the character assassinations perpetrated on them by Logan, in scenes that have a loose connection to the truth, but certainly by the sheer lack of imagination displayed by everyone involved in the production. Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are two of the finest examples of the flexibility of the adult mind; the sheer imaginative range of Carroll’s wordplay and of Barrie’s adventuring is a joy that has not receded in over one hundred years.

Peter and Alice fails to capture one tenth of this joy, this anarchic free-spiritedness, in one hundred minutes.

Reading the description of Barrie’s original production of Peter and Wendy one learns that Tinkerbell was created by the expedient use of a mirror to reflect a light onto the stage so that it would seem to dart and fly. This illusion, using the simplest mechanism imaginable, holds more wonder than the entire po-faced philosophising of Logan’s script.

To begin on the positives; Christopher Oram’s set is a delight. Opening on a musty office, it unfolds to a reveal the reassuringly sight of a chequer-board set and instantly recognisable Tenniel-inspired drawings of familiar characters. Given Peter Pan’s origins on stage it was a nice touch to reflect this in the use of classic flats that drop from the sky and retain a resolute two-dimensionality that highlights the artifice that lies behind theatre, and that means it will only ever be a simulacrum of reality.

Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench are perfectly adequate, and one hopes that, given this was a preview, there is a certain vitality that is still to come as they feel their way into the roles. Dench has a commanding presence that cannot help but be transferred to her characters – it is hard to imagine her playing a particularly vulnerable part. Her Liddell has developed a cast-iron exterior to the pressures of the world, and this contrasts well with Wishaw’s more vulnerable Peter Davies, a man who has not come to terms with the world as it is and the man who he will always be.

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