Following on from Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s Richard II at the Wanamaker, the Globe continues its history tetralogy by presenting Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V together this summer. Performed by the same ensemble (with the exception of Michelle Terry who only appears in the first third), this trilogy is designed to be both experienced either as three solo plays or, on several dates over the season, as a single epic trilogy. Not unlike TV episodes, the resulting creative challenge is to imbue each component with an individual character while also sculpting this grander narrative.
It’s a massive and difficult undertaking, and directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes signal their approach to this challenge by altering the plays’ titles. They are re-christened to have an optional and alternative title, so that Henry IV Part 1 becomes Henry IV Part 1 or Hotspur. They are each given their own personality, a distinct character to highlight, while also retaining their lineage and position. In practice, this is executed with varying degrees of effectiveness.
It works for Henry IV Part 1 or Hotspur most successfully, where Michelle Terry’s Hotspur is an undeniable force: bombastic and juvenile, hot like gunpowder, with lad-like bravado accompanied by very little wisdom. It’s a smart, comedic performance that provides a clear arc for the first play and is nicely contrasted by Sarah Amankwah’s Hal. She romps around in a red bomber jacket but, at the appropriate moments, foreshadows Hal’s denial of his past and his transformation into a ‘responsible’ ruler. After Hotspur is killed, Terry does not return, nicely framing this episode as both part of a trilogy, but also as a story in its own right.
Less successful is Henry IV, Part Two or Falstaff. Helen Schlesinger finds her footing in Part 1 with an audience-rousing, somewhat Saunders-esque Falstaff, as she describes to Amankwah’s Hal the multiplying men who ambushed them. But Falstaff’s time with Shallow (Sophie Russell) in the second part feels belaboured. The joy from Part 1 is lost in Part 2, as it takes a more reflective quality, but instead of musing outwardly with the audience, it turns in on itself.
The play ‘insists on dawdling’, as Hailey Bachrach keenly observes in the programme notes, but by basking in that meandering tone, something is lost in the grander narrative. Hal’s denial of Falstaff, a crucial and often heartbreaking moment, feels oddly wooden. And instead of mimicking Terry’s excision from the ensemble, Schlesinger returns in Henry V, hindering the feelings of loss for Falstaff and for what has come before.
By the time the battle-heavy and fast-paced Henry V or Harry England rolls around, the assorted coats of arms hanging around the Globe are replaced by Henry’s insignia, simply but effectively demonstrating that internal quarrels have been exchanged for ones overseas. This play clearly has a forward momentum that Part 2 lacks, and that helps the ensemble move quickly and effectively through the exposition.
Amankwah is undoubtedly the star here: she is blazing and spirited, blistering through Henry’s speeches. She leads us with strength and commitment to the end, even while her surroundings have seemingly little to say about the bloodied history that lay behind them. The fighting is bizarrely bloodless, and although there are loud off-stage explosions during the battle of Agincourt, they suggest the battle to be peripheral rather than central to the piece.
Credit also to Leaphia Darko as Alice and Colin Hurley as Katherine, who treat their scenes as if they are a comedic duo in a cabaret. Sure, they may seem like they are from a different play, but they are undeniably brilliant, dissolving the audience into fits of laughter.
The sense of collaborative creation from the ensemble, each of whom plays a plenitude of characters, brings about some beautiful moments, like when John Leader as Lady Mortimer sings a mournful song written by composer Tayo Akinbode. But these moments flit and fly away, and what’s lacking is an overarching interpretation or vision for the plays as a whole. Amankwah’s Hal transforms with great precision into Henry, but there isn’t any other swelling current moving the trilogy in any direction. The titular additions work to an extent, but it might be better to think of them as an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’, interweaving both Hal and Henry together in a vast but continuous tapestry.
Yet after spending seven hours watching Hal transform into Henry and daylight wane into night, what surfaces as a distinctive characteristic of the Globe is the undeniable participatory potential of its audience. As audience we almost encircle the actors. They’re working tremendously hard to bring 97 characters onto the stage, and they see us as clearly as we see them. They hear us blowing our noses, watch us walking around or stretching our back. We enact our own presence and demand, even if inadvertently, that the story should not just be told to us, but be affected by us.
So it’s the moments of audience engagement, either planned or not, that resonate in this production of the Henriad. During one of Falstaff’s most famous speeches, Schlesinger asks the audience, ‘What is that honour?’ to which a well-read audience member shouts, ‘Air’. Schlesinger laughs and celebrates her call’s appropriate and correct response. She turns to the rest of us, and exclaims surprisingly, ‘Someone’s read it’.
Shakespeare’s Globe’s Henriad is on until October 11th, 2019. More info on the plays here.