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.
Despite making some progress with his feats at Shrewsbury, Prince Hal remains a law unto himself – though now Poins is his constant companion, with everyone else left by the wayside. The king has become unwell following the battle, so has returned to Westminster to recover; after a particularly bad episode, Hal comes to his father’s bedside – though initially he believe the king is dead, they end up finally reconciling in preparation for Hal to inherit the crown. Meanwhile, Falstaff has avoided prosecution for an earlier robbery thanks to his recent military service, and looks to reassert his position prior to the Prince of Wales ascending the throne…
Here we get into ‘difficult second album’ territory. Taken in the context of a trilogy day, this play is a bit more sedate and feels wordier than its predecessor – this is by no means a bad thing, but there are a few unavoidable lulls in proceedings. Though distinguishing actors’ multiple roles is still doable, finding out their names can be a bit problematic, so some scenes do suffer as a result. It might actually be better served by the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as there are more intimate moments (I can imagine Henry IV & Hal’s conference looking stunning by candlelight).
Interestingly, onstage costume changes start to creep in during this play. I’m a bit on the fence about it, as it doesn’t particularly speed things up, though it does at least save the actor from exiting the stage only to have to come straight back on again. If there were some big symbolic reason for it then fine (e.g. if the same actor played Falstaff and Henry IV, and they had consecutive scenes with Hal), as it is it feels a little unnecessary.
Memorable moments come mostly from Falstaff, who has several big soliloquies, as well as his interactions with Justice Shallow. Helen Schlesinger builds on her performance from part 1, making Falstaff the life and soul of the play; it seems as though she’s having great fun with this role, which makes it all the more enjoyable to watch (especially with the out-of-the-blue reference to Hamilton). Sophie Russell really comes into her own as the overfond Shallow, and Steffan Donnelly is extremely entertaining when Silence finally lets rip!
The play begins with rumours spreading about the outcome of the battle at Shrewsbury, as Northumberland anxiously awaits news of his son. Whilst written as one ‘character’ (Rumour), different members of the ensemble speak these lines and pop up in different places; it’s quite beautifully done, representing the way that rumour does spread from person to person, and that sometimes the truth can become distorted because of it.
Tayo Akinode’s compositions are also worth mentioning at this point, as it feels like they make a bit more headway into this play – including some great contributions from the saxophone. In a play being performed in a large space, but that’s more about behind-the-scenes machinations, it’s vital that it has an element like this to inject a bit of life into it.
Though not as exciting as part 1, this play is still a vital piece in the Henriad jigsaw – concluding some plot lines (such as Hal & Falstaff’s relationship) and beginning others, setting up for the final part in this trilogy. And in a time when corruption in politics is often discussed (if not actually proven to be there), it’s a timely reminder that there have always been figures keen to obtain positions of power and influence just by dint of association – and not being at all interested in the common good.
My verdict? It’s not the most eventful of plays in many ways, but still full of important points and a vital part of the Henriad jigsaw – Helen Schlesinger makes Falstaff the life and soul of the play.
Henry IV part 2, or Falstaff 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.