Mark Ludmon reviews Henry V or Harry England now playing at Shakespeare’s Globe
Henry V or Harry England
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Shakespeare’s drama of Henry V’s victory at Agincourt has long been embraced by Englishmen as a celebration of patriotism and masculine valour. The king’s appeal to “we happy few, we band of brothers” is cited as a heroic call to arms, most notably after Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version during World War Two. But this is Shakespeare so nothing is quite so cut and dry. In Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes’s new production at the Globe, it is the bickering soldiers and the cynical cowards who stand out rather than their noble leaders.
Billed as Henry V or Harry England, the Globe reminds us of the eponymous king’s place in the myths of English nationalism. But, played by Sarah Amankwah, his rallying speeches feel little more than empty rhetoric, often spoken to an empty stage. Here, the narrative gloss provided by the Chorus is shared out among the characters, fragmenting the jingoistic message and highlighting how the words often have little to do with the action they commentate on. The king and his allies may be confident about their war against France but the soldiers and ordinary people are more sceptical or even hostile, longing for “a pot of ale and safety” instead of dying on the fields of Agincourt. Picking up directly from the end of Henry IV Part 2, we are reminded that Prince Hal has been advised by his dying father that an overseas war will end in-fighting at home by busying “giddy minds with foreign quarrels”. His claim to France feels tenuous despite being endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and more a part of the regal posturing that Hal assumes when he becomes king.
The result is uneven. There is a flatness to the grandstanding by the king and the other military leaders that lacks the excitement of the Battle of Shrewsbury that ends the same ensemble’s production of Henry IV Part 1 – the opening chapter of this summer’s Henriad trilogy at the Globe. After the delights of Falstaff and his confederates in both parts of Henry IV, the joys of this Henry V come from the exploits of the lower ranks and commoners. Steffan Donnelly is excellent as Fluellen, the leek-wearing Welsh captain, while Colin Hurley reprises his unconventionally restrained performance as the swaggering Pistol, a dangerous fool who is as entertaining as he is corrupt and cowardly. Hurley also provides one of the production’s highlights as the French princess Kate, hilariously trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting, Alice, played by Leaphia Darko. Sophie Russell – who was a brilliant Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 2 – shines again, this time as the French dauphin who loves his horse over any woman.
Despite the play depicting a victorious invasion, there is not a St George flag in sight. Under designer Jessica Worrall, the Globe is festooned with the medieval kings’ three lions flag, representing England, Normandy and Aquitaine, but even these are obscured on stage by the French fleur-de-lys once the action moves across the Channel. For those of us that have seen all parts of the Globe’s trilogy, it is a significant change from the multi-coloured flags of the different British factions that fluttered in the Thames-side wind throughout Henry IV – a reminder of how the foreign war has been inspired by domestic politics and the need for unity. But it is Shakespeare himself who reminds us, in the epilogue to Henry V, that this risky war, in which reportedly 10,000 Frenchmen died, was all for nothing, that within 40 years, his successor Henry IV lost all of France except for Calais.
After the exuberance of the two parts of Henry IV, the third part of the Henriad trilogy feels a more subdued, elegiac coda. It lacks the insolent spirit of Michelle Terry’s Hotspur in Part 1, and we feel the absence of Helen Schlesinger’s rollicking Falstaff who dies off-stage early on in Henry V. But taken as a three-part story, it is a phenomenal achievement by the Globe ensemble, with some unforgettable moments across the three consecutive evenings that I saw them. Occasional bursts of Tayo Akinbode’s music add a driving energy to the performances as well as moments of great poignancy, using a huge variety of sounds from trumpet and saxophone to percussion and period instruments. All the productions have scenes of dynamic physicality thanks to movement director Glynn MacDonald, fight director Kevin McCurdy and choreographer Sian Williams while the costumes seamlessly blend different periods to create a timeless look that evolves into bold reds and blues to distinguish the two sides in Henry V. Under Bedi and Holmes’ direction, they all bring a consistency of vision that reveal resonances and connections across the three plays. It also produces a closeness to the cast that led to cheers from the audiences when they saw familiar characters and performers return, a closeness that left me strangely bereft on my first evening without them.
Running to 11 October 2019