Review - Henry IV Parts 1 and Part 2 and Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe
The Globe project - recreating the conditions in which Shakespeare's plays were originally performed - was originally thought to be about a desire to recreate a kind of historical accuracy; but it has, in fact, emerged as one of our most radical (and popular) of all classical theatres.
And now, confronting this great trilogy of national history - of kingship and kinship - the Globe comes into its own in creating an entirely democratic theatre space, equally owned by actors and the audience they are playing to, that's inclusive of age, gender and race. Seeing all the plays together on one long day, you may find that 7.5 hours on those punishing benches (or standing in the yard, as some diehards do) is a bit of an endurance test - but also ultimately as exhilarating as it is enlightening. (You can also book to see them on separate showings).
The first and most radical decision was to look at these most masculine of Shakespeare's plays through a female lens: specifically, they are co-directed by two women Federay Holmes and Sarah Bedi. As Bedi says in a programme note, "As a director, I never anticipated directing these plays. It's such a masculine story that has been appropriated as a masculine history of England. I'd seen so many versions and they all had casts of white men, and as a female director I felt uncomfortable with that world."
Their approach is to throw away that dusty, musty past - and create a world in which lines of gender and ethnicity are evaporated, or at least entirely subverted. Prince Hal from the first play - who becomes Henry V - is played by the fiery, passionate Sarah Amankwah; Falstaff by a formidable Helen Schlesinger (a true chameleon actor, who changes effortlessly into a quartet of roles for Henry V including Queen Isabelle); Michelle Terry is an electrifying Hotspur.
And male actors play female characters effortlessly, too, especially Jonathan Broadbent, switching genders regularly in the course of the same plays to variously play Hostess Quickly, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Shadow and Constable. It's quietly wonderful to see such an accomplished character actor being able to show his mettle and versatility in this way. One of the theatrical joys of the trilogy is to see such a small, tight ensemble - there are just 12 actors in all - sharing the plays and parts between them.
The result is the best kind of Globe experience, and proves that when it comes to rigorous theatrical process that also breaks with traditional norms there's no place quite like it. Nor is there the kind of rapturous moment of connection that you get when Michelle Terry’s Hotspur addresses a speech directly to a young girl in her father’s arms in the audience. It's at times like this that you hold your breath and feel that you are in the greatest theatre in the world.
Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V are at Shakespeare's Globe until 11th October.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton