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.
Falstaff – the great re-titling of the Henry trilogy continues in the pivotal lower-keyed sequel to Hotspur. Henry IV Part 2’s always suffered from its refusal to repeat the high jinks of its predecessor. But it’s a richer play marbled with melancholy, with a knockout ending that’s easily one of Shakespeare’s finest.
We lack Michelle Terry from the ensemble, the eponymous Hotspur from the re-titled Henry IV Part 1. She doesn’t return, unlike others, in another guise. Initially it seems this play’s gong to be the Cinderella. But in the three weeks since it opened there’s a real pick-up of energy. Partly it’s down to the eponymous Falstaff herself.
As in Hotspur, 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. Falstaff or What You Will needs both this, and somehow to catch the dark like a skittering shadow.
It’s not easy. 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.
Directed by Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes’ spare design by Jessica Worrall cleverly pushes regalia to gallery hangings, suggests a bare inn with a bare stage and the Percy household concentrated on a central huddle. 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. Opposing forces are colour-coded: burgundy and dark blue.
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 those gallery flags. Tayo Akinbode’s percussion-rich composition is used incredibly sparingly, but again it’s the songs that haunt. Kevin McCurdy directs fight scenes.
Sarah Amankwah’s Hal starts deepening her previous higher registers – the playful’s gone with ‘I am exceeding weary’ though like Henry IV later there’s no sense of weariness. Nevertheless this Hal has a superb array of timbres, though latterly tends to the shouty which Amankwah has no need of: she has it all already. Hers is a vocal journey of darkening and covering the voice whilst still making it ring out. Hals sometimes manage a symbolic dressing-up from soft leathers to full armour – from the legendary Terry Hands 1975 productions with Alan Howard onward. Several tropes of their Henry V are adopted in the Globe one – they’re now ubiquitous. Amankwah’s vocal journey then is potentially one of the production’s greatest assets, from the soft leather of high japes to a martial ring. She brings great clarity – every syllable – and mostly an individual rationale. And – naturally – she’s a red-shift of energy.
Paul Arditti’s adamantine Henry IV here rumbles to one of the most intimate touching scenes of all: a dying father’s advice to his son over kingship. He’s one of Falstaff’s pillars, as it were: literally stretching the scenes he’s in with a worried majesty. The only problem is the production’s high energy seems to disallow more than a nominal lying-down on a red bed-clothed table from which the king soon ascends, a chipper figure sitting on his bed with his son: the last thing Arditti seems to be is ill.
Arditti’s new role as Doll Tearsheet is a predictable delight and like Hurley elsewhere gets some of the best laughs in slapstick and – here – a vein of genuine tenderness with Schlesinger’s Falstaff that’s one of the latter’s best exchanges.
It’s Helen Schlesinger’s Falstaff with whom Hal increasingly rejects a dark father whilst reconciling with his real one, that the tension must come. It doesn’t truly happen here. In the preceding Hotspur this was muted by more cheery interaction and Michelle Terry’s eponymous rebel. Here though Hal and Falstaff only have two scenes together, we miss the ache.
Everything Schlesinger does is tipped 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 sheds melancholy; Her Sir John is indeed a slimmer vessel. She intensifies though a sense of Falstaff’s intelligence probing further into the cheery anarchy than most – and with a pointed dismissal of her recruits’ deaths like a laundry bill (here everyone’s recruited to play one of them, even Amankwah’s wart). 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. Talking of indulgence one speech can induce nodding in the gallery: but Schlesinger’s ‘sherris speech’ engages; she bounces off ad-libs so there’s not an ounce of fat or sleep on it.
It’s the chemistry between Schlesinger and Amankwah that gets short-changed somewhat, though. So concerned with house style is this production, that key moments with Hal are missed. Scenes beginning as others end create energy and dispatch – and Falstaff or Henry IV Part 2 needs those – but must have a stop. Schlesinger’s way with the climactic rejection scene is to get the audience onside as a clapping entity. Here the design explodes with regality, with a proper vividness.
Amankwah’s put-down is louder than needs be, though she modulates once or twice, and doesn’t quite land because there’s no ice in it. Schlesinger’s Falstaff is in complete denial, turns to the crowd for more clapping, who magnificently fail to respond at all. It’s a fresh reading. Only when everyone’s hauled to the Fleet does the look of bewilderment finally register.
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. Darko takes on Gloucester and the later-doomed Hastings.
Broadbent’s appearances and Mistress Quickly get some of the best laughs here as be plays up fluidity against itself, and his green-tipped dress flourishes literally as a key image of this production. His visibly wearier Northumberland lends authority and clarity throughout his appearances in the Henry IV plays; and the Northumberland/Percy household’s scenes are some of the best. Broadbent relishes the over change into the Percy nemesis Westmorland in a beat, and Shadow
Steffan Donnelly’s charmingly Machiavel Prince John – less saturnine than normal – and threadbare Silence impress and he’s a blink-and-you-miss-the-dress as Lady Northumberland. Nina Bowers’ Poins is excellent, her round-heeled performance still shot through with high spirits, though no longer given leash by Hal. Poins hardly deserves general banishment, but as Hal’s second-brother-gentleman shadow, just vanishes.
Colin Hurley enjoys five roles but chief is a swaggering Pistol. Indeed he looks the part – and fires off water at the audience who briefly recoil. It’s a fun metaphor for Pistol’s pissing himself rather than firing in anger. Hurley in black with braided regalia like those U. S. president who’s been as far as the National Guard.
Sophie Russell’s Boy makes a first winning red-capped appearance, already jaded with his masters. A regal Archbishop too, her moment is Shallow, one here not beset by failing memory, but a bewilderment at fortune. The incipient melancholy drawn out between the two Inns of Court alumni gets lost in this brisker exchange with Schlesinger’s knight – a title which Shallow here rightly wonders at, setting questions in train.
John Leader though steals nearly all tavern scenes as Bardolph (Hurley’s Quickly gives him a magnificent run), played almost like Private Pike, but dimmer, the best Bardolph, both detailed and appealing, I can remember. She’s Lord Bardolph too.
The triumph of this newly-energized production is bringing the darker Falstaff to a diverse audience who’ll never feel the longeurs of some offerings. There’s too much stripped out with the fat to make this a rounded achievement, but it has time to put on weight.