Monday, 25 November 2013

Review of Jude Law in Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, November 23, 2013

It's telling that this production is at its best when Jude Law is playing Henry the man rather than Henry the King.

As the King, Law lacks the big-voiced bravado and brio that you expect from Shakespeare's battle-hardened Henry V. But as the Man, Law is charismatic, convincing and winningly human.

That's the main reason why the second half of Michael Grandage's production is so much more enjoyable than the first.

True, Shakespeare loads the first act with so many bishops blathering on about the politics of the day that it's more like a challenging history lesson than a drama. All Law and the sell-out audience can do is sit, watch and wait for the action to start - Law from his throne at the very back of the sparse, white-washed wooden stage, the rest of us peering down the alarmingly steep drop from the top of the old-school Noel Coward Theatre.

When Law is finally called upon to be kingly he seems a bit uneasy, maybe like the young king himself. Even now I'm always amazed at how Shakespearean actors so brilliantly memorise such complex poetry but on this first preview night Law seems in a bit of a rush; "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, " in the midst of Agincourt fizzes past without quite capturing the epic grandeur of the moment.

The Happy Few scene, in contrast, is very nicely done. Law's pre-battle rallying cry starts with his older courtiers scattered around the edges of the Globe-style semi-circular set. By the end he's encouraged a passionate huddle of fighting men with their arms around each other like pre-match footballers around the centre circle: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

But it's in the second half that Law and the rest of the cast really hit their stride. Confidence visibly grows and the audience comes alive. The undoubted highlight is Law's wooing of Jessie's Buckley's charmingly resistant Princess Katherine after his defeat of the French. He paces around her like an agitated teenager desperate to win her first kiss; teasing, cajoling and pleading in pigeon French until he finally faces her on his knees and wins the day just as her father walks in to great comic effect.

Law, now 40, oozes easy Hollywood star quality ten years after that Oscar nomination for Cold Mountain. This is his finest seduction since the clinch with Cameron Diaz in The Holiday that almost won him the MTV Best Kiss Movie Award back in 2006.

The direction feels solidly and traditionally authentic and the play still has resonance; the nationalistic rows between stereotypical Welsh and Scottish characters - complete with one Welshman's victim being forced to bite into a leek - strike a chord in a Britain on the brink of a Scottish independence referendum.

Shakespeare himself could have wandered in straight off St Martin's Lane and felt right at home. And that's good enough for me.

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