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.
We join the recently crowned Henry V in a heated debate over his claims to the French throne, when they are interrupted by the arrival of a gift from the French Dauphin: a huge chest of tennis balls. His mind made up, Harry sends word that he will be bringing English troops to take France – though before they can set sail he has a decision to make about three traitors who are unmasked at Southampton. Once they do make it to French soil they make a strong start, besieging Harfleur and forcing its surrender; this victory comes at a cost, leaving the English army weak and depleted as the French seek to bolster their troops. Offered the chance to give in, Harry refuses and sets his sights on the field of Agincourt…
I feel I should provide a warning that once the Battle of Agincourt begins in the second half, there are several very loud gunshot/cannon fire sound effects – I’m not sure if this is signposted outside the theatre, but it’s definitely not mentioned online.
This is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and oft-performed plays, and it’s easy to see why: its quotability, relatively straightforward plot, and potential for patriotism make it very appealing. It marks the finale of Hal’s story (as the only major character to make it through the trilogy unscathed) – his journey has its ups and downs, but ultimately he grows as both a man and a figure in the public eye, leaving the battlefield (and France) full of hope. There is another side to this play, which is an interesting one to consider at this point in time, as it shows England throwing its weight about on the continent for no good reason – and you also see the effects of war on the individual, as well as explore the concept of masculinity.
Which makes it all the more interesting that Sarah Amankwah has been cast in the title role, taking Harry on his journey from Prince Hal to King Henry V over the course of the three plays. It may not suit the traditionalists out there, but I’m a firm believer that a new production of a play should aim to give the audience a fresh perspective on the material and deliver its own message – what better way to do that than cast people by what they bring to the role, irrespective of gender? Not only does Amankwah demonstrate a great physicality, including scaling some scaffolding around one of the pillars onstage to deliver “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”, but she also manages to find greater emotional depth in Harry’s character than I’ve ever seen before. You can sense the emotional conflict within, as Harry reflects on his status on the eve of battle, acknowledging the moral burden he sees in the kingship and praying for his soldiers. It’s refreshing, too, that the so-called ‘wooing’ scene doesn’t descend into rom-com mode (as it’s true that Katherine’s hand in marriage had previously been offered to try and appease Harry), though Amankwah does at least manage to show that he probably is a decent bloke underneath it all.
Steffan Donnelly impresses once again, with his entertaining portrayal of the proud Welshman Fluellen, as does Sophie Russell as the pumped-up, grunting Dauphin. Colin Hurley is brilliant as Katherine, showing vulnerability as well as a certain amount of sass – and makes a great double act with Leaphia Darko as Alice in an utterly hilarious and unforgettable English lesson scene. The choice to share out the Chorus’ lines amongst the cast is another sound one, as it makes it more about the people in the world of the play rather than having one all-knowing narrator guiding them.
Jessica Worrall’s designs become much more straightforward for this instalment. Gone are the many different flags, and in their place are the red royal standards that suggest a currently united kingdom – and these oppose the blue royal standards when the troops reach France. It’s aesthetically pleasing and incredibly helpful in terms of the storytelling.
Of all three of the plays in this Henriad, the jig at the end of Henry V is by far and away my favourite. The cast (and band) appear on the stage with a drum each, and let rip with a primal & tribal display that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go – and you can’t help but find yourself beaming at the sight of it.
My verdict? A fresh perspective on a classic & well-known play, concluding Hal’s journey from errant prince to conquering king – an action-packed end to the trilogy.
Henry V, or Harry England 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.