He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named (Henry V: IV,iii)
… IF their legs are still working, that is. Shakespeare’s Globe staged three plays last Saturday, and a ‘happy few‘ of us bought groundling tickets for the trilogy. Here’s how I got on. [spoilers ahead]
The Globe has its own special buzz as you wait for the performance to begin – perhaps it’s the acoustics, perhaps the diverse audience (more overseas visitors, and more non-Shakespeareans than you might get elsewhere?), but both times I’ve been (the first was two years ago) I’ve heard a different anticipatory fizz to other productions, indoors or out. My Dearest Partner of Greatness (DPoG) was accompanying me only for episodes 1 and 3 – there’s only so far you can stretch someone’s willingness to indulge your hobbies, and I’d suggested those for her because I was looking forward to seeing her indignant Welsh ‘harrumph’ at the portrayals of Glendower and Fluellen (I wasn’t disappointed). So, we took in the flags that had been placed around the balconies and by way of (I hoped) helpful preamble, I hazarded as much of a potted history of Richard II as I reckoned I could without her switching off.
And off we went, beginning with a stylised report of Hotspur’s derring-do that was strangely evocative of the newsreader delivering the Prologue in Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet. It gave Philip Arditti‘s Henry Bolinbroke something to chew on, whilst I weighed up if he was more like Freddy Mercury or Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury. Wow! I hadn’t quite made my mind up, it seemed only seconds, before the Hotspur bounced onto the stage …
Michelle Terry was a pint-sized, petulant, rooster: constantly flapping her wings and pecking at her sovereign (and Glendower) in ways that certainly made ‘a hazard of her head’. It was hard to keep your eyes off what she was doing. I’ve quite a complex love-hate attitude to interpretations that vary from the production in my mind: this one I loved. Here I was, the performance only 48 hours since I’d declared my man-crush on Harry Percy to the world. And now not only was I confronted with a Percy that it was hard to admire (although easy to laugh at), but with the unhappiest of marriages to the neglected, rejected Lady Percy (Leaphia Darko). I certainly don’t mind being contradicted, or challenged – Terry played the part consistently, believably, and well; it worked, certainly for a standalone play. I enjoyed having my perceptions tested, and she gave me more than enough to allow me to feel sorry for her version of Harry when he died . But I wondered how they would reconcile Kate’s terrible marriage with the way she lionises her Harry at the beginning of the second play. Something needed to change, for those of us who were watching the entire trilogy – and it didn’t, which meant that the latter speech undermined Lady Percy’s character.
We can’t escape a few words on Falstaff, though this part of the trilogy was named for Percy. Helen Schlesinger dignified the other roles she played in Henry V, but Falstaff was clearly a role she absolutely revelled in. And she was very good at it. At the end of the night, I passed her at Blackfriars station. It was difficult to reconcile the demure, quiet person making their way home with the bombast of a few hours earlier. I recognised her, but made a conscious decision not to intrude on her privacy, so obviously had she left the day’s work behind her. From ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’ to just another anonymous traveller looking forward to getting into bed at the end of a long day. It emphasised how skilful and magnetic she’d been in role. One of the great things about The Globe is the way it invites and delights in audience participation. This is why we pay a fiver and stand on the concrete rather than renting cushions for the tiered seats: like going to a big football match, if you are part of the real crowd, not the corporate boxes, you are part of the atmosphere. Schlesinger took a lead in making this atmosphere happen, mugging to the crowd and involving them (and the circling helicopters) as much as possible – to the extent of stealing a beer, and a cap, from the audience. Falstaff’s catechism on honour took on a new dimension by daring the audience to actually answer her rhetorical questions. I felt I was watching the play in the late 1590s, despite the helicopters. Perhaps it’s just the different play, perhaps it was a response to her, but we were more boisterous than at Lear two years ago.
If Falstaff was suitably irrepressible, I struggled to take to Sarah Amankwah as Hal. Her delivery frequently squeaked up into a range more suitable for an audience of bats, rendering even familiar lines hard to recognise. My DPoG, who’s no slouch at following the language even if she doesn’t much enjoy the plays, struggled with Amankwah’s clarity on occasion. This was accompanied by an odd range of physical responses – she seemed to enjoy being rebuked by her father, and had absolutely nothing to offer to ‘I do. I will.’ A killer line, slain by inappropriate enthusiasm, and a delivery that was just too fast. I/we hoped that as the character matured, she might settle down, too. I mean, it could have been a deliberate portrayal of youth?
To sum, a good start to the day. The play was boisterous. The cast, high quality. The interpretation bold and interesting, and the audience up for it.
It’s hard to follow a play which is always in my top three, and this sequel didn’t quite hit those dizzy heights. I mostly blame Shakespeare, actually. The plot is interesting, and there are some parts that soar, but in many ways it is simply a play too far for the material – a little like turning The Hobbit into three films, something I will never forgive Peter Jackson et al for.
The real problem is Falstaff, funnily enough. That’s not a criticism of Helen Schlesinger, who reprised the role really well, even when I thought that her voice was showing signs of strain (we should never forget the physical toll of acting, by the way). The jokes are just less funny for modern audiences, too conventionally knowing, like the Elizabethan pamphlets of writers like Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene. So Schlesinger danced round the stage like a boxer lacking a knockout punch; we’d already admired and enjoyed the best bits of her personal interpretation.
But it’s an ensemble production, and abruptly I felt more appreciative of the work of other, initially less showy, actors – not least as they doubled their parts to cope with the increasing casting requirements. Nina Bowers (marvellous face pulling throughout); John Leader (dazzling contrasts between a cute, lovable Bardolph and other more serious roles, and a surprisingly pure singing voice); Sophie Russell (shrugging off the over-confident Glendower to play Shallow with comic aplomb); Colin Hurley (a marvellously drunk Pistol); especially Stefan Donnelly (the puritanical Silence, getting merry for only the second time in his life) – all distinguished themselves in this second play. Such an impressive ensemble.
And yet. Oh, and yet. I hate to say it, but I was waiting, waiting, waiting, for a cruel, hushed, devastating ‘I know thee not, old man’ from Amankwah, and didn’t get it. There was just too much emotion, too much shouting, too much gesticulation in that speech to maintain any pretence of Hal being ruthless or machiavellian. For me, at least, it needs to be sociopathic. Instead, Hal raged as if, ultimately, he was raging at himself about what he was doing to his erstwhile mentor. It’s interesting, seductive, even – but I don’t think the script supports that idea, not across the two plays. Were I Falstaff, Amankwah would have provoked a desire for revenge, not heartbreak.
I became aware of just how stiff my knees were. My back ached. It was time to take a quick break and go and get some tapas, sitting down, with the DPoG …
8pm: Henry V
Night presented its credentials as I wobbled back into The Globe. Aching as I was, my spirits lifted and I felt a rush of goosebumps as the ensemble delivered the Prologue. What a thrill it was, to be in the ‘wooden O‘ the first time I heard those words live!
Whilst we were eating, the theatre had been re-dressed: rich reds with Plantagenet lions were flipped with fleurs de lys on deep, dusky blue, as a simple but very effective indicator of which country the action was taking place in. The cast were similarly dressed, which made it easy to ignore the inevitable doublings of roles.
Sarah Amankwah began a little huskier and more measured, as I’d hoped, but her earlier shrieks started to creep in; extravagant hand gestures and angry shouting intruded too many times. These outbursts began to feel like they were dropped in merely to vary her delivery: one particularly anachronistic flare-up occurred during the ‘rough wooing’ scene in V.ii. I find the scene problematical as scripted, but it was made even more unlikely by having Henry bark at the Princess. And, fitting as it was to be furious, up in the scaffolding, for ‘once more unto the breach‘, it was misplaced for ‘O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts!‘
If Steffan Donnelly had made a mark on 2HIV as Justice Silence, he really came into his own as Fluellen, complete with a fine, only slightly hyperbolic, North-Walian accent. Even my DPoG, a ‘gog’ herself, had to smirk. I tried very hard not to tell her how well I thought the role, as played, captured the annoying loquacious, pedantic stereotype. And Jonathan Broadbent seemed to enjoy playing Hostess quickly as much as we did – all flustered yet knowing femininity.
A final mention needs to go to Colin Hurley. Utterly incongruously and hilariously, he simpered his way through the part of Princess Kate. Act III scene iv in particular, where Kate learns some English from her maid, was an absolute delight.
Suddenly, sadly, it was time to go, with the joyous drumming of the musical finale ringing in our ears …
On reflection, I would hate to come across as overly critical about the performances – I just fundamentally believe that any sort of review is only as good as the degree to which it is objective. I read too many uncritical reviews of books; perhaps sometimes I try too hard for balance and neutrality.
It’s niggardly to complain about an experience like this – five tickets for the three shows costing £25 in total is ridiculously good value for a high quality, professional performance. I love what The Globe does, democratising access to Shakespeare, taking the stuffiness out of the plays and giving the audience an ‘experience’. Just as a snapshot, Michelle Terry‘s vision as artistic director was so much more what I wanted from the day, from The Globe, than Emma Rice’s Lear delivered last time round. The Trilogy was a special day: the weather kindly avoided any extremes; the interpretations were effective, challenging but not silly, and broadly let the text speak for itself whilst adding value to it; the ensemble casting was, overall, very very strong. Oh, and the tapas were good! No adaptation will ever live up to what you’ve got in your head when it comes to texts you are invested in. Yes, standing for that length of time on the hard concrete floor isn’t for the faint-hearted, but I’ll look back on it as a brilliant event that I really enjoyed, long after my knees have lost their stiffness.
All quotations from the plays are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org