Henry IV Parts 1 and 2/Henry V review – a game of thrones with lots of leather

Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Michelle Terry is revelatory as Hotspur and Sarah Amankwah makes a majestic Henry in a valiant if uneven trilogy

‘A good heart,” says Shakespeare’s Henry V, “is the sun and the moon.” We see both over the course of the Globe ensemble’s valiant, if uneven, trilogy. At its centre, Sarah Amankwah transforms gloriously from lost layabout to moral king in this epic cycle that employs gender-fluid casting, minimalist staging and lots of leather. The audience are, in turn, Hotspur’s advisers, Falstaff’s rascals and Henry’s nobility, but by the final bows of this game of thrones, we are elevated even higher. To watch the trilogy in one day – sun to moon, loss to hope, death to life – feels almost a princely privilege.

Artistic director Michelle Terry’s volcanic Hotspur is restless and unruly in Henry IV Part 1, undoubtedly the strongest of the three productions. Witty and wise, she is wholly commanding: of her soldiers, of our attention and of the text. It is as though the words don’t exist until they leave her mouth. She’s so good it is hard to look elsewhere, and her scenes steal the humour usually reserved for Falstaff. After a swooping fight with Hal, the excellent band orchestrating each impact, her death is a blow not just because of how she has charmed us, but – for those seeing all three plays – for the knowledge that we now have five hours to go without her.

Part 2 struggles. With Hotspur dead, our focus turns to Helen Schlesinger’s lacklustre Falstaff. She’s plentifully jovial and has a kinder side than is often shown, but the comedy is too effortful, with the ensemble finding far more humour in the depths of war than Falstaff does at the bottom of a bottle. The biggest disappointment comes from the lack of chemistry between Falstaff and Hal. In the bows, Amankwah and Schlesinger dance together, and the sudden bolt of energy between them reveals what the plays are missing. It is only Jonathan Broadbent’s endearing Mistress Quickly, the quick-witted, kind-hearted tavern owner, who keeps us laughing through Part 2.

Sarah Amankwah as Hal and Michelle Terry as Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1.
Restless and unruly … Michelle Terry as Hotspur with Sarah Amankwah as Hal in Henry IV, Part 1. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Combined, the Henry IVs offer the opportunity to show the scope of England, from the high nobility to the lower classes, but with no focus and little dramatic tension in Part 2, we are barely given the scope of the stage.

As the moon begins to rise, it is a particular pleasure to hear Henry V’s epic opening in “this wooden O” for which the words were intended. It is here that Amankwah truly takes control, demonstrating “the mettle of [her] pasture”. Her earlier performances are strong, but now she is majestic – her rule is just, her roar ferocious and her humble Saint Crispin’s Day speech sublime.

The humour here is easy, with Amankwah’s wooing of Colin Hurley’s demure and playful Kate a gentle thrill to watch, but Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes’ direction sometimes flattens the action. The court scenes without the king lack power, and the battle of Agincourt itself is anticlimactic, taking place off stage and leaving us with a few mere gunpowder flashes.

Suddenly, it is 12 hours later and we’ve lived a dozen years. The sky has darkened. The battle has been won. As we leave the theatre with numb knees and cold hands, the hard-working Globe ensemble have ensured that the story will, on our imaginary forces, continue to work.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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