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 at Leeds Playhouse from 9 – 25 February ahead of UK Tour.
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.
“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 critical interpretations, from Nicholas Hytner’s Iraq war-era 2003 version to a bleak recent production at the Donmar starring Kit Harrington. Yet it is older, more triumphantly nationalistic outings that still loom largest in many audiences’ minds: the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh films, for instance, taken as stirring portraits of national pride.
“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.”
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. Audiences have been so surprised by the play’s brutality that Race Roughan has even been asked if she wrote certain lines. “No no no, Henry really does threaten to rape the women and murder the babies, that’s in the play! It’s just quite often cut out, or done in a way that doesn’t land.”
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.
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. “The anthem was just so in the air in a way that it hadn’t been three months earlier,” acknowledges Race Roughan.
Even so, making Shakespeare feel vital for contemporary audiences was a challenge for her – Henry V is the first Shakespeare play she’s directed. But anyone who has ever felt baffled by the bard will find her attitude refreshingly honest: “At one point, I was like I might as well be directing in French… fundamentally I don’t understand what you’re saying to each other. It felt like pushing a boulder up a hill made out of treacle!”
But the result of this was that 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.”
And Race Roughan is excited now that the production is having a new lease of life on tour. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is lit only by candles; she’s looking forward to the “electric version” of their Henry V. “It will remain a psychological production, but I think it will intensify it.”
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.”