A classy end to a successful season of Michael Grandage

Noël Coward theatre | By Xenobe Purvis
Four Stars

OVER the course of Michael Grandage’s five-play season at the Noel Coward Theatre, the venue has seen star-studded casts perform parts as diverse as spliff-smoking fairies and cross-dressing soldiers. And now it is home to Henry V, which – although offering us nothing so surprising – may well be the most memorable production of all.

Grandage treats Shakespeare’s text with confident loyalty. Slick, at only two hours and thirty five minutes, the performance is otherwise almost painstakingly true to tradition. The get-up of its Chorus (who doubles as the Boy) is the play’s only contemporary suggestion; in a Union Jack t-shirt and backpack, Ashley Zhangazha gently and glibly ties this production to the present.

As the eponymous king, Jude Law will draw crowds – and justly so. He promises at the start to “dazzle all the eyes”, and dazzled we are, with a turn which moves dexterously from hoarse-voiced patriotic passion to playful flirtation. His role is apt. Gone are the frivolous Alfies and Dickie Greenleafs of Law’s Hollywood past; much like Henry himself, who develops from the adolescent Hal in Henry IV to the conflicted man of Henry V, Law has matured, building on his Hamlet collaboration with Grandage in 2009 to evolve into an exceptionally powerful actor.

An intelligent cast bring depth to Shakespeare’s comic stereotypes. Ron Cook delights as the swaggering, leek-eating Pistol whose dispute with Matt Ryan’s likeable Fluellen is wonderfully well-timed. There are few female characters in this ultra-masculine play, but they demand attention: Jessie Buckley makes a sweetly uncertain Princess Katharine, while Noma Dumezweni’s Mistress Quickly moves with her news of Falstaff’s death.

Despite its world-famous lead, it is a curiously understated production. It doesn’t ram loud politics down our throats, as so many directors of Shakespeare seem determined to do today. Law’s Henry tussles in quiet conflict with himself; he is both charismatic and cruel, ordering the abrupt execution of every prisoner with one breath and joking to the princess with another. His is a martial king, but in the fireside glow, as he moves among his men, we can see on his face the moral toll of his decisions.

A discerning, although unchallenging, reading of the play, Grandage’s production gently impresses upon its audience hefty themes of just war, leadership and patriotism. It makes for a worthy close to his triumphant 15 month residency at this theatre, a season that has drawn and delighted old and new audiences alike.

The Young Vic | By Melissa York
Four Stars

THE YOUNG Vic’s production of Beauty and the Beast is not what you’d expect. The original tale of unconventional love is given a modern twist by husband-and-wife team Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser. Julie, a former beauty queen, met Mat Fraser, a thalidomide victim, while performing cabaret on Coney Island. But unlike Beauty and the Beast, Mat and Julie fell in love instantly, they tell the audience.

They speak to us directly throughout and the parallel stories unfold against a gothic backdrop of twisted mahogany branches and blood-red, velvet drapes.

The play punctuates the gloomy setting with frequent moments of hilarity, mostly derived from slapstick and seaside postcard naughtiness. I can’t stress enough how naked everyone is. Just over 50 per cent of the cast are naked for about 80 per cent of the time. Not a flash here and there – monologues are delivered absolutely starkers.

Any embarrassment or discomfort is dispelled by the end, and it’s a useful metaphor for how people deal with disability.

Life for the couple isn’t exactly a fairytale. When Julie told her mother she was engaged to Mat, she replied, “But why do you want to marry a cripple?” Julie says she was glad she asked because “to get it out all out there in the open is the first step to acceptance.” Quite.

The Serpentine Gallery | By Joseph Funnell
Three Stars

IMAGINE being inside the head of a disturbed teenager who has dabbled in the satanic arts and emerged with a twisted sense of humour. If you can’t picture it, Jake & Dinos Chapmans’ mini-retrospective at the Serpentine provides a good equivalent. It opens with their infamous Hell series. Panoramic glass cases show Nazi-zombie armies staging Ronald McDonald crucifixions in a grand war between Hitler and the Hamburglar. Humour aside, their ability to convey mass horror in miniature is captivating. Everyone should see these works once. But after five minutes of playing “spot the Führer” things get a little repetitive. We acclimatise to gore and repulsion fades to banality.

Strangely, their more refined aims show best through a troop of mannequins dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes, committing the ultimate sartorial sin: rainbow socks and Birkenstocks. Scattered around the gallery, scrutinising artworks and joking as we do, they provide an uncomfortable mirror to our own perverse obsession with disaster. Have the Chapmans finally grown up? Maybe not, but the show is definitely worth a visit.