Last Updated on 19th May 2019
Mark Ludmon reviews Henry IV Part 2 or Falstaff, the second part of Shakespeare’s Henriad trilogy at Shakespeare’s Globe London.
Henry IV Part 2 or Falstaff
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
After the roaring success of his play Henry IV in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare was driven – like Hollywood producers more than three centuries later – to come up with a sequel. Like Disney with Mary Poppins Returns, he picked up on what made the original such a hit, bringing back most of the characters and telling a similar story of a son estranged from his father and their struggle against rebellious lords alongside the booze-fuelled antics of a bunch of dissolute ordinary folk.
In the new production at the Globe, we have the same ensemble as Part 1 as well as the subsequent sequel to the sequel, Henry V, which are also part of the summer season as a Henriad trilogy. But there are plenty of differences in tone, theme and language to mark this out as a stand-alone play rather than simply a continuation.
It picks up directly from the end of Part 1, with Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, hearing about the death of his son, Hotspur, at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the hands of the young Prince Hal. When the powerful Archbishop of York steps forward with his own rebellion, they prepare to join forces for a new northern uprising. The drunken Sir John Falstaff is also back after his introduction in the first play, bringing with him old favourites Hostess Quickly and Bardolph plus plenty of other confederates including the “swaggering” Pistol, prostitute Doll Tearsheet, and justices Shallow and Silence. Inspired by a 1613 record of the two plays, the Globe bills them as “Hotspur” and “Falstaff”, reflecting how, in this sequel, the errant knight and his friends have more lines and time on stage than Henry and his history. As in Part 1, Falstaff is played with blustering brilliance by Helen Schlesinger, nimbly filling the stage in a wobbling fat suit, winning over the standing spectators with engaging interaction – even when stealing their drinks and clothing. He has fantastic support from Jonathan Broadbent as Quickly, Philip Arditti as Doll, John Leader as Bardolph, Colin Hurley as Pistol, Steffan Donnelly as Silence and Sophie Russell as a stand-out Justice Shallow.
But this is not the same Falstaff as Part 1. While he remains as little self-aware as before, Schlesinger adds occasional elegiac poignancy to his escapades as he starts to reflect on growing old and the imminent “chimes at midnight”. It matches the more sombre tone of the history as Henry IV – again played by Arditti – contemplates his own mortality as Hal waits in the wings to take over as Henry V. Although the plays were at most three years apart, there is also a greater maturity to Shakespeare’s language, with richness to his poetry and phrasing. It is here we have Henry IV speak for many of the playwright’s characters when he laments that “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.
After the reconciliation between Henry IV and his prodigal son at the end of Part 1, Hal is back larking around in taverns with Falstaff to the horror of his father but, by the end, he has acquired the trappings and demeanour of kingship. Starting out with youthful exuberance, Sarah Amankwah successfully charts Hal’s transformation to statesman as he casts aside his dilettante past to become the future King Harry. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the theatricality of performing power, where clothes and crowns define status, runs through both plays and this is cleverly highlighted by directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes through their approach to each actor playing up to five characters each. Costume changes increasingly take place on stage, most notably in Arditti’s transformation from prostitute to king, which not only maintains pace but exposes the artifice, showing that clothes really do maketh the man (and woman). It is a credit to the Globe Ensemble that the stage seems to teem with a huge array of different characters but the show’s final jig – excellently choreographed by Siân Williams – reminds us that, remarkably, this fine production has a cast of only 10.
Running to 11 October 2019.