Henry V thrillingly retooled as a Macbeth-style psychodrama

Oliver Johnstone as Henry V in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's new production - Johan Persson
Oliver Johnstone as Henry V in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's new production - Johan Persson

It starts with a theft. Rather than the usual prologue, this thrilling revival of Henry V begins with a scene from the end of Henry IV Part 2 in which a trembling Prince Hal takes the crown from his sleeping father, admittedly thinking him dead.

It’s a clever throwback, establishing for this most seemingly nationalistic of plays a framework that allows for resonant ideas of legitimacy and imperialism to be in constant debate. Henry IV’s dying admission that he himself obtained the crown through “indirect crook’d ways” will haunt his callow heir throughout everything that follows. This is a Henry who rules not by divine conviction but with a private, quaking terror that the crown isn’t even rightly his to begin with.

It’s scarcely revelatory to strip back the patriotic myth making that’s often shaped our responses to Henry V: earlier this year at the Donmar, Max Webster did precisely that in a shock-and-awe revival featuring Kit Harington. Holly Race Roughan’s production however, which to some extent retools the play as a Richard III- or Macbeth-style psychodrama, feels bolder, more intelligent and true.

Oliver Johnstone’s Henry is a volatile, confused and doubt-ridden man-child who goes to war against France not out of a sense of noble destiny but in a fit of unhinged pique over tennis balls. On discovering the assassination plot against him, he strangles his former friend and possible lover Scroop with his bare hands. Driven most of all by fear of humiliation and exposure, he manhandles his whimpering, terrified soldiers into preparing for war with France, in pointedly inglorious scenes that recall those of Russian conscripts being called up in Ukraine. The play’s extraordinary visions of bloodshed, sometimes co-opted as paeans to the glory of the battlefield, have the force of apocalyptic nightmares.

This is a fast, slick, spare production that rarely skimps on detail as it digs deep beneath the play’s presentations of power, nationhood and, yes, pesky testosterone. In a chilling echo of the death of Scroop, Fluellen, often played as a bit of “Welsh” light relief, is brutalised by the racist taunting of Pistol into almost throttling him to death too.

Oliver Johnstone and Joshua Griffin in Henry V in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's new production
Oliver Johnstone and Joshua Griffin in Henry V in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's new production

Played by the actor Dharmesh Patel, Scroop “appears” again, like Banquo’s ghost, in the form of the French herald Montjoy, popping up with icy taunts about the superiority of the French at moments when this most isolated of Henrys could most do without it. Henry himself, who veers between psychopathic drive and an incipient nervous breakdown, delivers the St Crispin Day speech not as a rallying call to arms but to himself, curled up in a ball alone, barely able to get the words out.

Mythic ideas of Englishness are gruesomely distorted; the hanging of Bardolph is presented as a grotesque maypole dance; bitter strains of the National Anthem are a recurring musical motif. And in a brilliant stroke, the two key scenes featuring the French princess Katherine (Josephine Callies) are reversed, so that she is first brutally coerced into marriage by Henry (even the pretence of romance is beyond this badly out-of-his-depth King) and then attempts to learn, in increasingly desperate exchanges with her mother, the English words for the parts of her own body, now the possession of someone else.

I could have done without the final scene set in a modern day centre for citizenship tests: it feels like a rare gimmicky send-up of deluded English exceptionalism in a production that elsewhere probes precisely this in ways that feel startlingly focused and fresh. The Globe has been pretty variable of late. This, though, is terrific.

Until Feb 4. Tickets: 020 7401 9919; shakespearesglobe.com