The opening scenes to Michael Grandage's Henry V are not auspicious. Ashley Zhangazha's Chorus, in Cool Brittania T-shirt and backpack, makes a determinedly guileless plea for attention, the desperation of which becomes understandable as soon as we enter the King's Court. Here we find the courtiers bedecked in hefty tent-like regal clobber, none of them apparently capable of any movement more exuberant than nodding. Meanwhile superstar King Henry V (Jude Law) enthusiastically leads with his codpiece. In his jazzy red leather jerkin and pearl-white ruffled shirt, for a moment or two I hallucinated that I was watching Russell Brand rallying a small congress of saturnine wombles.
That this production is largely a vehicle for it's star may rankle with some (the Gap style advertising posters on which he appears alone in a dark t-shirt and jeans are particularly incongruous) but after this shaky and overly respectful opening it soon hits its marks. And Law is truly excellent. Given how simple it is to instantly YouTube the St Crispin's Day speeches of Olivier, Burton, Branagh, Rylance and Hiddleston (as well as those of various precocious 5 year olds being tiger-mummed towards early-onset introspection) the pressure on star names to find novel approaches must be significant. Yet even in the midst of a staging which is resolutely conservative, Law seems to have found a new way to depict Shakespeare's most traditionally heroic king.
Law's version certainly isn't straightforwardly heroic. Indeed if he isn't precisely sneering, he seems at times faintly petulant or even resentful – saving perhaps his most spontaneously passionate moment for Henry's complaint in his soliloquy before the battle of Agincourt: "what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony?" An analysis that one suspects only seems natural to other kings. Not that one feels he is interested in other people's views; indeed he is aristocratically unconcerned when ordering the execution of his former friend Bandolph. His dealings with the soldier Williams, who slights him while he visits his army in disguise, also seem inappropriate; a marginal transgression of his divinely appointed power. He is not a king we guess for whom empathy is considered a vital life skill; it might even just be possible to imagine his modern day equivalent happily zapping insurgents from a helicopter as if playing a computer game. His rallying "Band of Brothers" lacks nothing save perhaps the fire of sincerity. This all contributes to the production's highlight – the scene of Henry's impetuous wooing of Princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley, graceful and sympthetic), when Law unleashes his charm in a way that is both very funny but always slightly presumptious, and even a touch bullying.
In the scenes without Law there's usually a slight drop in the production's voltage, with a stiffness to many of the encounters between the nobility. Nevertheless whenever the action moves to the world of commoners and soldiers, it is both naturalic and fluent (no doubt this contrast is in part deliberate). Even so the comic irreverence of Bardolph (Jason Baughan), Nym (Norman Bowman), Pistol (Ron Cook), Mistress Quickly (Noma Dumezwenni) and to a lesser extent Fluellen (Matt Ryan) help to breathe life into Shakespeare's subplot. They both keep the production from seeming inbalanced but are also a wonderful reminder of the quirkiness of Shakespeare's history plays, and how in hindsight not all the stars need wear crowns.