New co-production of Shakespeare’s Henry V takes a fresh look at the classic play

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Director Holly Race Roughan speaks to Holly Williams about her latest production.

When Holly Race Roughan first read Henry V last year, her reaction to Shakespeare’s much-loved history play was that something more dark and complex lay at its core.

Luckily, the production she’s directed is anything but dull: a lean, chilling, gripping interpretation of the play, it arrives in Northampton next week.

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Race Roughan is the artistic director of Headlong theatre company, who tour new plays and fresh stagings of classics around the country. But the suggestion that she sink her teeth into Henry V came from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where the resulting co-production has just enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at their indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, winning rave reviews.

Oliver Johnstone as Henry V, directed by Holly Race RoughanOliver Johnstone as Henry V, directed by Holly Race Roughan
Oliver Johnstone as Henry V, directed by Holly Race Roughan

“I was interested in whiteness and nationalism, and I had another play entirely in mind,” admits Race Roughan. But the more she looked at Henry V, the more obvious it became that it had plenty to say about not only whiteness and nationalism, but also imperialism, immigration, Brexit, Royalism, and our country’s status as an international power (or not).

The story of Henry V leading British troops to a stunning, unlikely victory over the French, the play has often been subject to many critical interpretations. “Henry V has been used and co-opted, through various points in history, as a piece of nationalist propaganda,” says Race Roughan. Reading it, she felt like she had “unearthed an origins story of the creation of Englishness. I felt like this story needs to be held accountable for its contribution to the ideology of Englishness, with all its toxicity.”

Not that she’s committed an act of vandalism on a classic. “I don’t think Shakespeare wrote a piece of propaganda; I also don’t think he wrote a searing criticism. I think he’s written something very smartly ambiguous. And what me and the team set out to do was to turn the dial up on the bit of the play that is often turned down.”

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Running at just two hours long, this is a pared-back and pitch-black Henry V, a psychological thriller where the human cost of an expansionist war, conducted to burnish the male ego, is laid bare.

Rather than a noble hero, their Henry is a dangerously capricious leader: one minute, full of anxious self-doubt; the next, spurred by a near-psychotic temper into cruel practical jokes and merciless vengeance. And Oliver Johnstone is sensational in the part: he has a watchable charisma, both vulnerable and terrifying.

This Henry has the self-questioning interiority of a Hamlet – his famous “once more unto the breach” speech is delivered inwards, as if trying to spur himself to action rather than his troops. Yet he also possesses the manipulative zeal of a Richard III: not a statesmanlike king, but one of Shakespeare’s arch villains.

“I had a strong sense that I wanted an unreliable, maniacal, Richard III [style] Henry. And Oli got us there, but via a really long journey – in the first half, [he’s a] fragile, vulnerable bullied child who suddenly finds he’s got to rule the county,” says Race Roughan. Rather than open the play with Shakespeare’s soaring prologue, Race Roughan and dramaturg Cordelia Lynn have inserted a scene from Shakespeare’s earlier play, Henry IV part ii. In it, we see Henry V bullied by his father – even as he is dying. This provided Johnstone with the psychological key to unlock the character.

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The play also closes in an unconventional way: with a brief final scene that is indeed completely new, and which brings the play sharply into contemporary Britain and the hostile environment. No spoilers here – but this coda helps highlight how Race Roughan sees the play as being about “the origins of empire”, something she wanted to dig into at the moment.

“We are living in a time of post-Empire: crumbling economy, and crumbling British might. How interesting to do a play that is all about the might of England, that has been used to get people riled up in the name of Englishness, at a point where it feels like our country is in decline on the world stage.”

And Henry V continued to feel eerily more relevant as they worked on it. Literally as they were auditioning actors, ‘the queue’ – of mourners wanting to pay respects to Queen Elizabeth II – formed along the south bank, outside the Globe theatre. “I went into it thinking about nationalism and Brexit and Empire, and in the middle of it, the Queen of England died,” says Race Roughan, still a little incredulously. “We put a scene at the beginning which is all about the death of a monarch – and that suddenly felt really visceral.”

The production, which opened in December, also makes heavy use of the national anthem: the first time in 70 years when the lyrics would be the same for the play’s monarch as for our actual monarch.

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Even so, making Shakespeare feel vital for contemporary audiences was a challenge for her and it became incredibly important to Race Roughan that the production be crisp and comprehensible. “A lot of our rehearsal process went into making it crystal clear. There’s a thing around access there for me: how do I make sure that someone with a PhD or someone who just happens to want a night at the theatre is following the same story?”

She approached the text in the same way as she would a brand new play: making cuts and changes where needed for both clarity and pace. “It’s short, and it’s punchy.”

Race Roughan always loves seeing how Headlong’s work changes as it tours across the country. “A production is 50 per cent what you rehearse, and 50 per cent the audience. So if the audience changes, that’s a significantly different production. I’m interested to see if people will laugh or be moved in different places – to see what we will learn about this play by being in Leeds, Northampton and Worthing.”

Henry V takes to the Royal stage in Northampton from Tuesday 7 to Saturday 18 March, in a production by Royal & Derngate Northampton, Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong, with Leeds Playhouse.

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