Theatre: A Henry V you just can’t believe in

Patchy in the fog: Michelle Terry

Shakespeare’s Henry V can be performed as either patriotic jingoism or anti-war propaganda. The latter interpretation is much more popular these days. Henry, the man, can be acted as either hero or war criminal. It all depends which bits of the text are cut. But what happens when Henry is played by a woman? The answer, in this instance, is you don’t believe it for one moment. I wouldn’t want this Henry V to be anybody’s first Shakespeare or indeed anybody’s first Henry V.

There are not enough roles in the theatre for women. One of the ways to address the problem, in Shakespeare at any rate, is to have woman play male roles and turn them into female roles.

Robert Hastie’s modern production at Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, begins with the Chorus (Charlotte Cornwell) surrounded by the whole cast. There is nothing new about a woman playing the Chorus. She looks around, rejects the men and chooses Michelle Terry to play Henry V. Now that is new. (Actually, there was an all-female production during World War I, headed by 15-year-old Fabia Drake.)

Michelle Terry remains Michelle Terry playing Henry V. She never is Henry V. It is always a little touch of Terry in the night. It is absurd the way the other characters refer to her as “he” and “the king” when she is so obviously a woman. Four male Captains are also played by women. The result is that when they are all talking about the disciplines of war they sound like gossiping women.

The Battle of Agincourt has been choreographed to dramatic drumming and lighting, but the choreography is poor and goes on far too long. Much more effective is the shooting of Bardolph by a firing squad.

The French Princess is played by a man (a dignified Ben Wiggins). Henry’s courting loses its comedy and brutal conqueror’s edge. The most successful and easily the most pertinent and resonant performance is by Jack McMullen as Williams, the soldier who reckons, in any future inquiry into the invasion, that the king must carry a heavy responsibility for the carnage on the battlefield.

Mike Bartlett’s Wild at Hampstead Theatre is inspired by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who copied an enormous amount of classified US documents and leaked them to the press. The whistleblower (Jack Farthing) is in a hotel bedroom in Russia, on the run and liable to be murdered by the CIA and the KGB. He needs protection but whom can he trust? Isolated, he becomes more and more disorientated until he is completely up the wall. The play is all talk; and exhaustingly so in the long opening scene.

Twenty-year-old Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed by a sniper during the Battle of Loos in the First World War. Thirty-seven war poems were found in his kit. Robert Graves ranked Sorley with Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. Neil McPherson’s It Is Easy To Be Dead, extremely well directed at Finborough Theatre, Brompton, by Max Key, is based on Sorley’s life, letters and poetry. It includes songs by George Butterworth and others plus contemporary photographs. Alexander Knox is excellent as Sorley. It will be interesting to see what this talented actor does next.