In mounting the Henry IV and V plays as the opening trilogy of this year’s season Michelle Terry is inviting comparison with one of the most notable productions in the last ten years of the Globe’s history. In 2010 Dominic Dromgoole put on a superb version headed by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker that projected a fairly traditional production into the huge spaces and multiple levels of the Globe about as well as it could be. Terry is wise not to imitate this approach, but unfortunately, the overall result is no more than the sum of its uneven parts.
Henry IV Part 2 is here sub-titled ‘Falstaff’, though, in fact, we see less of the fat knight in here than in Part 1. It is a more subdued, melancholy and less rambunctious play than its predecessor – there are both fewer revels and fewer rebels; though it is true that the same pattern of contrasted alternation applies between aristocratic rebellion and tavern-centred, bold bawdry. The dramatic focus centres around two points of intense inwardness – Falstaff’s reminiscences of ‘the chimes of midnight’ with his old friend Shallow, and the deathbed reckoning between Henry IV and his son. Overall, we need to feel that everyone is ‘uneasy’, and not just ‘the head that wears the crown.’
Unfortunately only very intermittently do we feel this sense of complexity. Much of the time the cast is in the default mode of shouty, hyperactive, broad-brush jollity that too often prevails in this theatre at present; and only in a few cases do the actors carefully assemble detailed layers of characterisation. This did not much trouble the audience on the opening day, but it did serve to reduce the impact of the finest scenes in this particular play which only reveals its inner secrets with careful and discreet coaxing. This has to reflect poorly on the direction rather than the qualities of the cast. Bedi and Holmes do not seem to have had a strong concept to offer overall, relying on the scenes to register locally. Nor did they reimagine things visually – this is a play that is crying out for actors popping up on different levels of the building, especially in the action scenes, and yet only the arena and the stage were involved – with a few incursions into the Minstrels’ Gallery.
However, where the actors took their own initiatives there were often real dividends to be found. Philip Arditti, for example, turned in two stylish and stylishly different performances as Doll Tearsheet and Henry IV himself. As Doll he was part, tart and camp as needed, providing an excellent foil to the prim, faux-modesty of Jonathan Broadbent’s Mistress Quickly. And as the king, he was fully on top of the fretful anxiety and foreboding that suffocates the king as much as the illness that eventually kills him. Moreover – almost uniquely in the cast – he actually took the trouble to point and phrase the verse. You could feel the focus of the audience sharpen immediately in response and implicit tribute. There was also excellent work from Sophie Russell, playing Justice Shallow and the Archbishop of York. Again, you felt that whenever she was on stage she made her text register first ahead of any elaborate crowd-pleasing gestures. As Prince Hal, Sarah Amankwah has rather less to do than in the flanking plays but she managed the transition between roister-doister and a mature heir to the throne with plausibility.
Unfortunately, this plays stands or falls on the ability of the actor playing Falstaff to convey the many-sided complexity of this endlessly fascinating and frustrating role, and here Helen Schlesinger’s characterisation fell very short. We saw little of the guile and none of the inner melancholy. Instead, we received a performance that reminded this reviewer of Jennifer Saunders in her most daffy and narcissistic Ab Fab mode. The audience loved it, not least at the moments when the fourth wall was not so much dissolved as obliterated; but there is so much more to find here.
Costumes were often colourful and inventive, though hovering uncertainly between period, and the same might be said of the music too. Reversal of expectation seemed to be the intention, most obviously in the gender-switched casting; but it was not clear what particular insights or advantages resulted. In fact, a lot seemed to be mixed up in a way that may have made sense in the rehearsal room, but without a stronger guiding directorial hand, failed to survive more detailed scrutiny on stage.
- By William Shakespeare
- Directors: Sarah Bedi & Federay Holmes
- Lead performers: Sarah Amankwah, Philip Arditti, Steffan Donnelly, Colin Hurley, Sophie Russell, Helen Schlesinger
- Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
- Until: 11 October 2019
- Time: 19:30 (check with theatre on matinees) Duration: 2 hrs 20 mins, inc. interval.