The Henry plays, as the story of a wayward prince who becomes a king, are fundamental to our understanding of Shakespeare as the first modern playwright, revolutionary in his interest in personal growth, individual psychology and the roles we play in life. This production by Sarah Bedi, with its small cast of men and women playing multiple parts, in and against age and gender, captures this spirit of the new and is a joy to experience.
Sarah Amankwah (Prince Hal/Henry V) is a quick and mercurial presence, able to jest with the best, keep up with Falstaff’s wit, then hold his own against a very disappointed father, Henry IV (Philip Arditti) and swap fun for fanaticism. The pacing in Henry IV Part 1 in particular whips you along from tavern to court and back again, overflowing with humour (and a nod to Jonathan Broadbent for a panto Hostess Quickly) that even makes the normally ultra-serious and macho Hotspur (Michelle Terry) appear as a comical, sneering teenager with anger management issues.
Helen Schlesinger’s Falstaff who, channeling Eddie’s Ab Fab, is so full of beans and wordplay that you wonder if they might spill out of her padded tunic. Casting a woman adds something fresh to the role. Mortality’s shadow has always been an integral part of Falstaff’s humour but in his new gender, there is an added poignancy: the wounds he receives along the way just seem to go a little deeper. This vibrancy carries into Part 2 but as a whole, the second part — in comparison — always felt a little insubstantial, barring the famous betrayal ending. If you have to choose, see Part 1.
In Henry V we move to France and the futile efforts of the 100 years war. There is plenty of dark material here, as the fun loving prince pursues his bloody assaults. But the play starts to sag in what should be rousing moments — even babies on spikes, Henry’s threat at what he will do to us, the imagined residents of Harfleur — fails to move the audience, who we sensed were fidgeting. There is the overriding sense of Henry as a propaganda play with lion-embossed banners blowing all around the beautiful Globe stage.
But Henry’s drive to fit the bill doesn’t endear us to him or lend him sympathy — he’s just a rapacious CEO, wanting to expand his empire whatever the costs. That said, the comic scenes are wonderful. Casting Queen Katherine (Colin Hurley) as a woman is genius and her bashful reactions in the wooing scene bring the house down. Similar to Henry IV’s comedy is this play’s strength, with standout performances from Nina Bowers as shamefaced Thomas Grey, and the gutsy Duke of Orleans.
Concluding with a cool drumming showdown, the state of England has never looked so modern but the merry England of old remains.
Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT. Tickets £5-£47, until 11 October 2019.
Henry IV Part 1:★★★★☆
Henry IV Part 2:★★★☆☆
Henry V: ★★★☆☆
Review by Matthew Holder and Belinda Liversedge.