FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes with spare design by Jessica Worrall. Costume supervision’s by Lucy Martin, with crowns and millinery by Rebecca Hartnoll and Jane Smith with (vitally) Pam Humpage on wigs – with Jenny King Embroidery adding a map-cloth and various pageantries hung around. Tayo Akinbode’s percussion-rich composition is used incredibly sparingly, but it’s the songs that haunt. Kevin McCurdy directs fight scenes.
Hotspur. The Globe enjoys a reputation for re-visioning Shakespeare in his play titles. In the three parts of Henry VI the original titles informed their 2013 tour, and will do again. Henry VI are coming to the Wanamaker this winter with the same team that’s putting on the current Henry IV Parts I and 2, and Henry V in the Globe’s Summer Season.
Here, the subtitles – for Henry IV Part 1 it’s Hotspur – suggest subtitles spell subtext, though not enough of that emerges. Nevertheless it’s exciting and swerve-balled and with Michelle Terry appearing in just the first as the new eponymous hero – exhilarating.
There’s a contradiction too: highlighting the discrete separateness of each of the trilogy rubs up against the continuity of the eleven then ten-strong company throughout. Having lived with them through 110 characters it’s clear that continuity wins out: we’re back to the trilogy.
There’s a sur-titling or branding too – last year’s collaborative approach to Hamlet and As You Like It condenses as a house style, with gender-fluid roles now taken as read by the audience – a young audience too. (This alone makes you cheer; young people whooping through history plays.)
Developing the ensemble, co-directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes involve some of last year’s cast with new names, to enlarge the freewheeling, joyous elements that marked the best of those productions.
As before, energy concentrates in a few characters which lends occasional unevenness, but a few weeks in, it’s clear that moments that might have hung fire to begin with have boosted. There’s rehearsals planned for the summer too: what you might see then could be different again. Another house style emerges in Brechtian scene-changes where costumes are changed downstage with a wipe off the mouth of lipstick as gender morphs with the back of a hand.
With a spare design by Jessica Worrall there’s striking heraldry on bare surfaces. And the relaxed soft leathers hardening into coats later. Neither modern nor period, garb glories in gallimaufry: from Hal’s red bomber jackets to Falstaff’s absurdly plumed helmet. Costume supervision’s by Lucy Martin, with crowns and millinery by Rebecca Hartnoll and Jane Smith with (vitally) Pam Humpage on wigs – with Jenny King Embroidery adding a map-cloth and various pageantries hung around. Tayo Akinbode’s percussion-rich composition is used incredibly sparingly, but it’s the songs that haunt, particularly as sung by John Leader’s Lady Mortimer. Kevin McCurdy directs fight scenes.
Sarah Amankwah’s Hal starts in playful higher registers and vocally has a superb array of them. She brings great clarity – every syllable – and mostly an individual rationale. There’s occasional moments where the selection of intimacy or roaring seems inverted to trace a different arc to the one we’re used to – it reaches an apotheosis in Henry V. But here the two foils determine much. What’s particularly touching is the intimacy forged over an agonizing long wait by Paul Arditti’s adamantine Henry IV. For most of this play his pained disappointment hangs like a pall.
It’s Helen Schlesinger’s Falstaff to whom Hal seeks a dark father and what we get is sometimes a wonderful disconnect from the gut-lugged original. Everything Schlesinger does is touched with intellectual fire. She’s the most agile Falstaff on record, but also the most playful – snatching beer cans off audience members and drinking them off too. She lacks the darkness of the richest readings, and some of the melancholy. She intensifies though a sense of Falstaff’s intelligence probing further than anyone else’s. If there’s inevitably Jennifer Saunders in the mix – the silver wig seems designed to invoke her for one thing – there’s no short-hand indulgence of the Fat Knight either.
It’s the chemistry between Schlesinger and Amankwah that gets short-changed somewhat, though. For instance so concerned with house style and Brechtian scenes beginning as others end is this production, that a key turning’s missed. When Falstaff wheedles: ‘banish Jack Falstaff and banish the world’ and Amankwah’s Hal intones ‘I do. I shall’ with a tiny crack of doom, the moment’s lost in the flurry of proving each scene goes off and on to the same beat.
No fear that Terry’s ever confined by that. such a spark, her cartwheeling rays so infectious that when she dies, almost casualty with a sudden ‘for’ still sitting up, it’s like the lights go phut all over Britain.If there’s a nuance her rapid speech and sheer stage command ensures it gets across. Her Hotspur tears into the play with a mix of front and surprisingly warm asides, with fine work from Jonathan Broadbent as Northumberland. Though no such luck for Leaphia Darko’s eloquent Kate Percy, on whom Terry unleashes the full force of soldierly misogyny. It’s properly chilling.
Broadbent’s appearances as Westmorland and later Mistress Quickly (sovereign laughs here) lend authority and clarity throughout his appearances in the Henry IV plays; and the Northumberland/Percy household’s scenes are some of the best.
Steffan Donnelly’s Prince John and Earl of Worcester both draw in the sense of natural plotters; John’s less saturnine than normal. Nina Bowers’ Poins is excellent, her Douglas with two-sworded brio superbly edged as it were, someone who brings a similar martial quickness to Terry’s. Colin Hurley’s Lord Mortimer can regally contrast with the luckless, cruelly-spun Francis, the confused serving-man of the tavern. He’s one example where Hal’s cruel japes abide our question. Another is Falstaff’s cynical use of a 100 feeble men impressed for the Battle of Shrewsbury, 97 of whom die: all to protect Falstaff from being pushed to the fore by a vanguard of valiants.
Sophie Russell’s Vernon and particularly her Owen Glendower spark memorably off the strategy scene with the map and subsequent grandiosities visited on Hotspur, Douglas and others. Leader though steals tavern scenes as Bardolph, played almost like Private Pike, but dimmer, the best Bardolph, both detailed and appealing, I can remember. And his singing as Lady Mortimer to close the end of the third act and first half infuses the play with more of the melancholy it deserves.
Jagged it might seem at moments, but it’s a soaring remix of how the play settles a succession on congealed blood. You should see all three if you’re open to the way populism and scholarship can remake history plays. If just one, probably this.