Henry V has often been used as a reflection of national mood or circumstance.
It’s complex and subtle narrative has been turned this way and that, from Olivier’s stirring big screen rallying cry in the final year of the Second World War to Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 National Theatre re-tread with criticism of the Iraq invasion and the ‘dodgy dossier’ that legitimised it.
Here in 2019, and within Grosvenor Park’s “wooden O”, director Loveday Ingram has – unsurprisingly – focussed her attention on Brexit and the current debate over national identity to pit Harry, England and St George against a France that comes wrapped in the EU flag.
In Ingram’s world, the English side is an unlikely alliance of yobbish nationalists and sharp-suited ideologues, brought together under what she describes as a ‘charming and charismatic leader with powerful rhetoric and rich promises but who may in truth be a self-serving hypocrite’. Ouch.
On the opposite side is a bureaucratic state that is confident, bordering on arrogant, its superior numbers will ultimately bring those greyhounds in the slips to heel.
Of course, how you see events unfold will depend in part on your own particular outlook. And rather like the Brexit debate, Shakespeare’s story isn’t clear cut between good and bad, right and wrong, hero and villain.
Dramatically, it’s certainly a sweeping tale to tell in such a compact space with minimal props, but there’s clever use made of the available resources to give a sense of numbers as well as the feverish, scrappy and confused reality of warfare.
The core repertory cast take on multiple roles across both sides of the divide, augmented here by both trainee actors (William Medland impresses as Boy) and an eight-strong ‘community chorus’ which melds seamlessly with the professional actors and is used creatively by Ingram, choreographer Helen Gould and fight director Paul Benzing.
At its heart of course is Hal, and Joseph Millson gives a measured and intensely thoughtful performance as the king who has reinvented himself from a wayward youth and who invokes a divine mandate for his actions - but who finds himself conflicted in the field.
Joseph Millson (Henry) and Sarah-Jane Potts (Katherine). Above: The Battle of Agincourt. Photos by Mark Carline
However, while his Henry’s rallying speeches and kingly bolstering of his troops have great clarity and impact, at other times the measured and thoughtful approach make it hard to pick up his lines, which is intensely frustrating.
Elsewhere, Samuel Collings generates an exuberant but uneasy swagger as the braggart Pistol, while Seren Vickers gives a joyful performance as his nemesis, the verbose but loyal and brave Welsh captain Fluellen.
Sarah-Jane Potts brings a feisty, fun-filled edge to Katherine, France’s pawn princess who proves a teasing counterpart to Henry’s tongue-tied suitor in a finale that promises a welcome reconciliation of old foes.