Kicking off the new summer season at Shakespeare’s Globe is a continuance of the history plays sequence which began in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse over the winter. Following on from Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II, we head into Henry territory, with Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V on offer; the Globe Ensemble are back to perform all three plays, reinstating the original titles of Hotspur, Falstaff and Harry England. They’re playing separately, as well as in full-on trilogy days dotted across the duration of the run.
After seizing the crown from Richard II, Bolingbroke is now Henry IV. However, affairs in the land are far from settled; Prince Hal (the heir to the throne) spends his days in taverns in the company of Falstaff, and there are still uprisings to worry about. When Northumberland’s son Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy claims a dramatic victory over a band of Scots, Henry IV finds himself envying Northumberland for having such a successful and honourable son – but Hotspur’s unwillingness to surrender the important prisoners he took during his victory looks set to undo all of his good work. It also offers Hal an opportunity to redeem himself as Hotspur’s refusal grows into a rebellion, the two sides facing off in an all-out battle at Shrewsbury.
With Henry IV parts 1 & 2, we enter into a lesser known period of history as well as encounter two plays that aren’t often performed – and this is definitely a great time to give them an airing. The in-fighting of the nobility is reminiscent of the lack of clarity in current British politics, with different parties taking chunks out of their own ranks on pretty much a daily basis; the turbulence of those times (which eventually led to the Wars of the Roses) echoes through to modern-day instabilities and the unofficial civil war that is Brexit. Falstaff’s exclamation “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying” strikes quite a chord here, provoking plenty of wry laughter.
In contrast to last year’s Globe Ensemble productions (the first of Michelle Terry’s tenure), there’s definitely more of a focus this time round – it doesn’t feel like a mish-mash of ideas all competing for dominance. The players assemble to tell their story, introducing the play and diving into the action; Jessica Worrall’s designs help immensely here. There is a consistency in costumes that makes it easy to follow (for those in the cast who are less ambitious accent-wise, this immediately allows us to differentiate between the different roles they’re playing), and the regional flags that bedeck the theatre for parts 1 & 2 add a welcome splash of colour, as well as reminding us of all the factions involved in this high stakes game.
The approach to casting these productions continues to throw up some unexpected gems: Jonathan Broadbent’s Northern Irish Hostess Quickly is a welcome comic presence, and John Leader’s mournful portrayal of Lady Mortimer is extremely touching. “Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool art thou to break into this woman’s mood, tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own!” This is aimed at Hotspur – played in this production by non other than Michelle Terry, which induces a knowing reaction that somehow manages to turn the line on its head. Terry is incredibly powerful as the firebrand Hotspur, bringing a frenetic energy to her performance and showing off her comic chops. Philip Arditti is strong as Henry IV, and Sarah Amankwah begins Hal’s journey excellently, with a twinkle in her eye but also a growing sense of what the future holds. Helen Schlesinger also makes an immediate impact as “fat old man” Falstaff, parading around her newly acquired belly and tossing back her silver locks with abandon.
This play’s climax is the battle at Shrewsbury, which is rather cannily performed; between directors Federay Holmes & Sarah Bedi and fight director Kevin McCurdy, the energy and frenzy of battle is re-created, along with some set-piece fights. The band come into their own here, together making a raucous noise and also individually acting as live sound effects for the individual clashes – this slightly more abstract approach has a great effect.
My verdict? A fast-paced, fun production that speaks to our politically unstable times – a great way to start the new season.
Henry IV part 1, or Hotspur runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 October 2019. (Trilogy days: 9 June, 30 June, 3 August, 17 September and 11 October.) Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.