Mark Ludmon reviews Henry IV Part 1 or Hotspur, the first part of a Shakespearean trilogy at the Globe.
Henry IV Part 1 or Hotspur
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Despite its title, there has never been agreement about who is the hero of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One. The medieval king opens and closes the drama but other characters have stolen the limelight for directors, audiences, theatres and publishers over the years. For some, it has been a coming-of-age story for the king’s son Prince Hal, later Henry V, while others have seen it as a celebration of the swashbuckling young English hero, Hotspur, the rebellious Henry Percy. For most, the history is overwhelmed by the iconic larger-than-life character of Falstaff whose name shared billing with Henry IV and Hotspur on the first published edition in 1598.
The new production at the Globe finds a more equitable solution, sharing the focus across all four characters – in line with the theatre’s emphasis on collaborative ensembles of actors and creatives. Prompted by a 1613 record of the play as simply “Hotspur”, it has been given the title of Henry IV Part 1 or Hotspur – with the sequel in the 2019 season dubbed Henry IV Part 2 or Falstaff – but this serves chiefly to make us question whose story it is. The role of Henry Percy has been taken by the Globe’s artistic director and leading Shakespearean actor Michelle Terry but there have been no major revisions to make him the star of the show. He is still the last of the four to appear, during the third scene, a minute or two later than the original texts suggest, and – in Terry’s brilliantly nuanced performance – he comes across more as an impetuous, disrespectful youth, albeit a charismatic one, than a credible leader and kingmaker.
For anyone unfamiliar with medieval history, the production suffers from a confusion of lords and exposition, with Worcester, Mortimer, Douglas and Vernon taking up arms with the Percys against the king and his allies such as Blunt and Westmorland, leaving most of us with little choice but to enjoy the language and a general sense of rebellion. Philip Arditti is excellent as the charming, statesmanlike king while Sarah Amankwah brings a youthful exuberance to Prince Hal that fills me with promise for what she will go on to do with the role through Part 2 and the third part of the Globe’s summer Henriad, Henry V or Harry England.
But Henry IV Part 1 is arguably best known for its introduction of the legendary Falstaff who Shakespeare brought back not only for Part 2 but also for The Merry Wives of Windsor, which joins the Globe’s summer repertoire on Friday. In Henry IV, he is played by Helen Schlesinger who does not disappoint as the swaggering, rakish coward and thief who befriends the young prince. Often interacting with spectators, she wins over the audience with her very funny, full-bodied performance, most notably in the laughter-filled scene where she and Hal role-play an audience with the king. As Falstaff’s foils, John Leader is excellent as Bardolph while Jonathan Broadbent shines as a hilarious Hostess Quickly.
Directed by Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes in collaboration with the Globe Ensemble, the production sometimes loses momentum but it is full of intelligent detail and regularly bursts into life, especially in the drama’s climactic Battle of Shrewsbury. It is a fitting sequel to the Globe’s all-female Richard II at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this year, again challenging the traditional masculine casting of the history plays, with their almost exclusively male lists of characters. Just as Elizabethan audiences had little trouble with Desdemona or Juliet being played by boys, the Globe demonstrates the strength of gender-blind casting, emphasising that Shakespeare’s histories need not just be men’s stories but part of his broader exploration of human experience.
Running to 11 October 2019