Eva de Valk on the South Bank
1 June 2019
A leader struggles to legitimize political rule, tries to reunite a fractured country and manages to deepen the division even further in the process; cut to a short while later, and we we’re off to Europe to fight with the French. You would be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about the current political situation in the UK rather than a bunch of centuries-old plays, but here we are: once again Shakespeare has proven his sometimes uncanny timelessness. Not that co-directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes are making any direct parallels in their take on three quarters of the Henriad. Richard II recently having been staged in the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – the first professional production in Britain of a Shakespeare play with a cast exclusively made up of women of colour, the outdoor Globe’s summer season is largely taken up with the other three plays: both parts of Henry IV and Henry V.
Michelle Terry as Hotspur in Henry IV. Credit Tristram Kenton.
It’s a rare treat to be able to see these plays in such short succession, staged by the same directors and with the same cast. As a whole, the Henriad is a masterclass in power politics, although the exclusion of Richard II from the line-up does shift the focus away from the troubles of having and holding on to power. Instead, the central theme usually becomes the education of a king, as the plays track the development of the young Prince of Wales from Hal, rebellious son and barfly extraordinaire, to Harry, the warrior-hero of the Battle of Agincourt. I say “usually” because the Hal to Harry transformation does not occupy the prominent position it’s often afforded here. A quick browse of the programme notes reveals that the creative team was keen to redeem Henry IV Part 2, by far the least popular of the three plays and often considered to be too much of a sequel to be staged by itself, and to give it a life of its own. This becomes clear when looking at the subtitles each play has been given: Henry IV-1 becomes “Hotspur”, Henry IV-2 is subtitled “Falstaff”, and Henry V is now called “Harry England”. The storyline of Hal’s development is still there but is consequently somewhat overshadowed by the other titular characters taking centre stage.
On the one hand, this is a perfectly reasonable decision. Falstaff deservedly is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, allegedly making such an impression on Elizabeth I that she suggested Shakespeare write him his own spin-off: The Merry Wives of Windsor, also part of the Globe’s summer season and reviewed here. And while Hotspur can be a monumentally dull figure in the wrong hands, I would happily watch artistic director Michelle Terry’s take on him all day long. It’s no punishment to spend a lot of time with either of these characters.
On the other hand, in their efforts to make each part speak for itself, the company have undermined the cohesion between the three plays. The tone and atmosphere of each of the shows is quite different, and without the focus on one overarching theme, they feel slightly out of step with each other. Perhaps this was intended as part of the experiment; all the same, the decision to stage them all with the same creative team and cast seems to suggest no one had quite enough confidence in the three plays as individual entities to go the whole hog and make them into separate productions. The result is that the three parts are too different to fit together comfortably, but too similar to really take them seriously as self-contained plays. It is, to quote Falstaff, a bit of an otter: “neither fish nor flesh”.
Sarah Amankwah as Henry in Henry V. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
What we do get is a series of enjoyable if somewhat uneven productions; by no means revolutionary, but engaging nevertheless. The first part of Henry IV details the titular King’s struggles in dealing with a double rebellion: an armed uprising by disgruntled nobles under the leadership of the brave but volatile Harry Hotspur, and the disappearance from court of his oldest son, who prefers to spend his time with the merry drunks and thieves of the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, London. While this is often presented as a story of two halves, the cold-blooded political machinations of court versus the jolly exploits of the tavern crowd, in the hands of this company the whole play has become unexpectedly funny. Philip Arditti’s King Henry rules his country and his household with sardonic wit and a flair for the dramatic not unlike that of his troublesome son, giving a different dimension to the strained relationship between the two men who are clearly more alike than either cares to admit. Hotspur is hilariously cantankerous, Terry spending most of her time on stage either in the middle of an angry diatribe or barely managing to hold herself back from exploding into one, although her scene with wife Kate (Leaphia Darko) is unexpectedly moving. And of course, there are the exploits of the Eastcheap crowd, centred around the battles of wit between Helen Schlesinger’s Falstaff and Sarah Amankwah’s Hal, who bounce off each other with such a familiar ease it seems they’ve been doing this for ever.
The second part of Henry IV often feels like the odd one out a little bit, and it’s the same here despite the company’s best efforts. Much of the action is essentially a variation on the events of Part 1: there’s more fighting against rebellious nobles, more strife in the Hotspur household, and more of Hal hanging about in the tavern in order to avoid going to court and facing his father, who is once again exasperated at his son’s seeming lack of interest in matters of state. With King Henry losing much of his enjoyable dramatics while he’s on his sickbed, without the antics and mutual deflating of egos by Hal and Falstaff, who are separated for most of the play, and without the vitality that Terry’s Hotspur brought to the action, Part 2 loses a lot of its prequel’s dynamism. Schlesinger makes a valiant effort to enliven and lighten up proceedings, but Falstaff’s comedy scenes with the inane country justices Shallow (Sophie Russell) and Silence (Steffan Donnelly) lacks the sparkle of the dynamic between Schlesinger and Amankwah. Instead, much of the comic heft comes from Jonathan Broadbent who successfully milks the role of Mistress Quickly for maximum comic potential.
Part 2’s darker, more subdued mood can also make an impact, however, as is demonstrated in some of the play’s most memorable scenes. Even knowing it was coming, I was caught off guard by the steely edge Donnelly brings to Prince John’s double-crossing of the surrendering rebel leaders, which effectively sets the standard for the Machiavellian power politics that will reign supreme for the rest of this play and its sequel. And Hal’s rejection of Falstaff, the bleak note on which Henry IV-2 ends, is every bit as heart-breaking as it ought to be.
It’s then on to Henry V, the most performed and perhaps also the most divisive of the three plays, since it’s difficult to know what to make of its main character. In the two parts of Henry IV we have seen Hal learn the tricks of the political trade and come to accept his role as heir to the throne. In Henry V he is king, Shakespeare’s most successful and heroic leader on the one hand, but also a master manipulator with a pronounced nasty streak. In lieu of making sense of this ambiguity, productions have sometimes been known to cut or downplay these less savoury aspects of his character but fortunately that is not the case here.
Over the course of the three plays, Amankwah shows Prince Hal’s transformation into King Harry as a subtle, sometimes wavering but ultimately unavoidable process. It allows the audience to look at Harry cruelly tricking his treacherous nobles into condemning themselves to death and recognize it as a matured, bitterer version of his tavern pranks. We can see the necessity of Harry’s scheming even as we somewhat wistfully think back to Hal’s happier days. So, while Amankwah is certainly not the most likeable Harry to ever grace the stage, she’s also all the more compelling for it. She threatens the citizens of Harfleur with “naked infants spitted upon pikes” with shocking coldness, but also has no trouble in gaining our sympathies as she attempts to bargain with God for victory. Her Crispin’s Day speech is not the tub- thumping piece of shouted patriotism that it can often be, but an initially brittle thing that serves as much to convince Harry as his comrades in arms. Between all the strong, self-assured performances across the three plays, Amankwah’s Harry stands out as a masterclass in ambiguity, and it’s all the more impressive for it.
Between the nastiness, fortunately there’s time for a good laugh again as well. Colin Hurley makes an understated but very funny Princess Katherine of France, and the scene in which her lady-in-waiting Alice, an equally hilarious Darko, attempts to teach her English is the comedic highlight it should be. Russell’s Dauphin harping on about his horse comes a close second and is made even funnier by the parallel with Russell bestowing similarly glowing praise upon Prince Hal in front of an equally unappreciative audience in Henry IV-I. The obnoxious Welshness of Captain Llewelyn can easily fall flat with contemporary theatregoers, but the versatile Donnelly quickly gets the audience onside, resulting in a heartfelt cheer when he forces his nemesis Pistol (Hurley, again excellent though not at all understated here) to swallow his Wales-bashing words as well as Llewellyn’s leak.
Conceptually speaking, this iteration of the three plays is fairly standard, then: there is no superimposed concept, no time period they are obviously grounded in. The costumes are the expected mishmash of period elements and more modern bits and pieces. Even the connection to England or the UK is loose: sure, the plays are actually set here, but the omission of any connection to current British politics seems to suggest they could just as easily be happening elsewhere. The most obvious concession to contemporary culture is in the movement – the work of choreographer Siân Williams and movement associate Glynn MacDonald: from Ned and Hal’s “loitering lads” posturing and Hotspur’s “fresh out of court-ordered anger management therapy” dynamic to the post-show dance moves, they bring a low-key modernity to the plays.
Sarah Amankwah and Colin Hurley in Henry V. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
On the movement front, I was left charmed by the battle scenes, or perhaps I should say battle scene: the battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV-1 is the only one that makes it onto the stage. Fight director Kevin McCurdy has done some beautiful work here, the stylized fights looking energetic and energetic and graceful, but the elegance of the display feels rather incongruous in the cycle of plays that gets very real about the horrors of war. And Henry V, which only features the mediocre pyrotechnics and people running about, really feels underpowered in this department.
Elsewhere there are some rather baffling inconsistencies across the three plays too. Tayo Akinbode has composed some musical interludes each of which are beautiful additions to their respective plays, and all completely different in tone and genre. The necessary costume changes – most cast members play at least three roles – are handled differently in each play, sometimes taking place right out in the open and sometimes being done more furtively. Men playing women wear dresses and women playing men wear trousers, until Hal’s younger brother Thomas, played by Russell, suddenly appears in a dress. Perhaps all this is also part of the plan to differentiate the three plays, but if so, it seems like a rather arbitrary way of doing it.
Difficulties aside though, I did really enjoy the Globe’s latest take on these plays, and it remains a pleasure to be able to see them together like this. But what I perhaps liked best of all was to once again see in action how the Globe under Terry’s leadership does equality: a truly mixed cast in terms of ethnicity, age, accent, and gender. In her second year as artistic director, the novelty might have worn off slightly, but that should not stop us from appreciating the fact that we can now see England’s hero king being played by a young black woman wooing a French princess who is played by a balding man in his sixties. Because that is something to be celebrated.