Henry V as a trustafarian toff? This is how not to re-write Shakespeare

Once more unto the breach: Laurence Olivier as Henry V
Once more unto the breach: Laurence Olivier as Henry V - Alamy

I turned 30 a few months ago, but Henry Henry made me feel old. Not just old, but clapped-out, knackered, weary to my bones. The debut novel of Allen Bratton, a young American short-story writer, it’s a modern retelling of the Henriad, hyperactive in its iconoclasm and gleeful in its caustic embellishment of Shakespeare’s source material. It features Hal being fellated by Falstaff and using a sex toy on Henry Percy. You will pine for the janky 1980s BBC adaptations.

Bratton’s novel picks up in the mid-2010s with Hal, the dissolute eldest son of Catholic gentry, drifting through London, his days fogged by alcohol, cigarettes and all-consuming cocaine benders. His ghoulish father – Henry the Elder – haunts a draughty Belgravia mansion. His most dependable companion is Falstaff, a raddled roué who picks up boys in his Fulham local. And Hal’s on-off boyfriend is Henry Percy, a “gap yah” do-gooder with decent teeth, strong arms and a self-flagellating degree in development studies.

The early chapters are quite fun. Bratton has a sharp eye for the absurdities of the white-saviour ex-public-schoolboy. And there’s a keen sense of the aching fugue of one’s early twenties – a smog of fraying purpose and directionless ambition, clammy with the realisation that adult life may have been exhausted before it has truly begun.

Even here, though, Bretton’s novel begins to grind uncomfortably against Shakespeare’s plays. The stakes are unavoidably lower. The drama for this Hal comes when his debit cards are blocked, so he can’t pay his drug dealer. Shakespeare’s hero, you’ll recall, had to face off against the massed armies of France and rebellion among the Welsh. (Incidentally, it’s a missed opportunity, given the novel glimpses Brexit brewing on the horizon, that Bretton doesn’t find space for the Welsh windbag Owain Glyndŵr, one of Shakespeare’s cruellest, and funniest, minor characters.) As for the historic background, in Henry Henry, Hal’s father has merely disinherited his uncle Richard – rather than imprisoning him and starving him to death. The antics of a spendthrift trustafarian just don’t cut the same dash as the rumbling majesty of Shakespeare’s work.

But the book’s greatest issue is an invention of Bratton’s. In a grand reveal, it becomes clear that Hal’s father has been sexually abusing his son. The first time this abuse is described, it scalds. But as the novel progresses, Bratton runs out of road. Having uncovered a psychosexual entanglement between Hal and his father, he leaves himself nowhere else to go; after all, abusive incest is about as far as its possible to push a fictional father-son relationship (and stretches the historical reality far beyond breaking point.) More unfortunate still, inadvertent or not, is the suggestion that Hal’s homosexuality – working in toxic combination with his much-emphasised Catholic guilt – is born of this warped sexual awakening.

When Bratton allows his writing to breathe, you glimpse a fresher, more expansive novel. The gentle treatment of the death of Richard II, for instance, whose fate is shown late in the story, seems to come from a different, less claustrophobic book. Like its protagonist, Henry Henry is furious with bottled energy. Yet without Shakespeare’s grand canvas – and marred by Bratton’s intrusive, insistent impishness – its invention fizzes futilely, a squib in damp grass.

Henry Henry is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books