Band of Warring Brothers

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Review of 'Henry V', director Nicholas Hytner, National Theatre, London

No other Shakespeare play has been so shamelessly harnessed to the chariot of imperialist war than 'Henry V'. In the 1944 film version Laurence Olivier turned it into a patriotic wartime epic by cutting out those bits of the text that didn't conform to this political objective. From the Falklands to the first Gulf War, and most recently in the war on Iraq, the propagandists and the ideologues have appropriated Henry's famous rallying cry in order to provide a noble justification for squalid adventures. Even the 'Sun' got in on the act by making a direct comparison between Col Tim Collins' call to arms in Iraq with Henry's at Harfleur.

Hytner's brilliant production, however, takes a different tack. In business suits and modern battle fatigues the setting may be contemporary, but the interpretation stands any crass jingoism on its head. The adverts for the production explicitly describe a young leader taking his country to war with no moral or legal justification. Hytner himself has made his own anti-war stance clear. The beginning of the play has the two bishops presenting an implausible justification for the invasion of France to a willing king and his ministers. Henry is willing because an attack on France will divert attention from his problems at home, not least his dubious claim to the throne: 'Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels'.

The war is pursued ruthlessly. Dissident cabinet ministers are executed. The French are portrayed as boastful and overconfident. The citizens of besieged Harfleur are threatened with dire consequences. Prisoners are shot. The rank and file of the army are browbeaten and cajoled into action. In a poignant rejection of his own carousing past Henry shoots his old drinking buddy Bardolph for looting. God is recruited to the project. The rhetoric of the play, designed to provide the ideological justification for the war, consequently rings hollow. The gap between the grand speeches and the sheer brutality of war becomes a chasm.

Hytner has made clear his determination to involve more black actors and his multi-ethnic cast give excellent performances, especially Adrian Lester as Henry. A stark and dramatic set makes good use of the theatre's wide open spaces, and powerful sound effects and the clever use of video footage all combine to make this a memorable production. The pace of the action is brisk enough to keep the audience engaged and Hytner clearly puts his own stamp on the play as any good director should.

One of the production's strengths is to undermine perceived notions about the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare. This is not the Shakespeare of the national heritage beloved of all politicians seeking ideological cement for their own concept of nationhood. Instead we have an Elizabethan product worked on for a contemporary audience.

The 'relevance' claimed for Shakespeare nearly always misses the point. The study of Shakespeare is often justified by reference to his universality. But this assertion flies in the face of the fact that his plays were shaped by the tensions of a specific historical period - the transition from feudalism to early capitalism - a period which saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, and splits in the aristocracy and attempts by successive kings and queens to reinvent themselves in order to cope with the changing circumstances. The old medieval concept of an absolute ruler imbued with divine authority was being challenged by the shifting economic reality and the monarchy was constantly being called on to justify itself.

Henry is such a monarch. Shakespeare has his king mixing incognito with his troops before Agincourt in order to gauge their opinion and finds them less than reverential towards him . He addresses them with the comradely 'we band of brothers' when he feels the need to persuade them to go into battle against superior enemy numbers. But when the casualties are reported the brothers become 'none else of name'. He is portrayed as acting in his own interests and not swept along by blind external forces. By exploring the complexity of his experience through the dilemmas and contradictions of his character and by use of language that illuminates these tensions, Shakespeare can engage a contemporary audience in his drama. This is why Hytner's production succeeds. His own interpretation does not force parallels or stretch analogy beyond credibility, but he does provide a staging of the play that challenges the audience to think.

Go and see 'Henry V' if you can, especially since some of the tickets are being offered at a reduced rate.