Henry V, the last of Michael Grandage's season of plays, is a glorious production. His interpretation of Shakespeare's story of a King possessed by his call of duty to lead his country to victory over the French, no matter the cost in blood, is a stunning drama that deftly combines bloody violence and emotional depth with witty comedy.
And at the heart of it is a truly, genuinely brilliant performance by Jude Law.
Jude Law's performance as Henry V is unequivocally the best acting performance I've ever seen from him. His Henry is full of contradictions - his possessive belief that he is blessed by God masks him to the tyrant he is. Yet he is a king as much at ease with the phenomenal power he wields as he is with his army of men drawn from the most desperate of backgrounds.
It is an authoritative, modern interpretation from Law. Henry's big speeches to his outnumbered army - "once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" - are delivered with heartfelt emotion, with a meaningful connection to the men he knows he is dragging off to their possible death, which is so much more profound than the imperious versions we are more used to.
There are a couple of quizzical elements to the production - the decision to merge the characters Chorus and Boy into one may confuse those not familiar with the text. And the after the gut-wrenching massacre at Agincourt, the play turns quickly to farce as Henry tries, clumsily, to woo Princess Katharine of France, which is a little jarring.
But neither detracts from what is overall yet another brilliant show from Michael Grandage in what has been a superb season at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Chances are also taken in the design of the show. Whereas Nicholas Hytner transported his version of Othello at the National Theatre earlier this year to contemporary Cyprus and Jamie Lloyd moved his Macbeth to a dystopian Scotland, Michael Grandage has kept his Henry V rooted firmly in traditional Shakespearian design. His king sits on a wooden throne whilst around him the Catholic priests wander in their floor-skimming robes and caps. Everyone is in capes, cloaks and armour.
Also, in quite a contrast to the rich forest scenes that he created for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Christopher Oram has gone for a sparse Globe Theatre look for Henry V. Unvarnished wooden floorboards underfoot and minimal set design. Set off with some very impressive use of lighting from Neil Austin to create texture through colour, I liked it. But I couldn't help feeling a trick had been missed.
Jude Law is incredibly impressive in the title role, yes, but one of the main advantages to star casting in is that it brings in people to the theatre who might not otherwise come. And that is great. I applaud star casting. Theatre needs it to survive. But do I think that those who flock to see Jude Law in this will think, 'ooh, I loved that. Let's go and see more theatre?' I'm not sure.
By keeping the production so traditional, it kind of reinforces a lot of people's fear and dislike of Shakespeare - that it's all in very plain settings, with lots of people in tights and leather boots spouting verse they don't really understand.
One of the great benefits of going to see a show not on press night is that you get to witness how non-theatre critics i.e. real people, respond to the play. At the interval, there were a few hushed whispers of "did you understand that?" and I couldn't ignore the handful of audience members who had fallen asleep.
I loved this production, I really did. It was full of pace, the dialogue was brilliantly interpreted and brought to life by the cast, and the production had moments of genuine heartfelt drama and laugh-out loud comedy. I just hope everyone else who goes to see this feels the same, I really do. Fingers crossed.
Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, London
To February 15, 2014