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Theatre review: Bold retelling sees bard in a new light

Power and politics: A scene from Henry IV Part 1 PICTURES: TRISTRAM KENTON


Henry IV Part 1 ★★★★✩ Henry IV Part 2 ★★✩✩✩ and Henry V ★★✩✩✩

Shakespeare’s Globe

THERE’S a revolution going on under new head honcho Michelle Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe. Out with the white men, strutting about in cod pieces as if they owned the country. In with the women and people of colour, playing kings, revolutionaries and cult leaders.

This mammoth triple bill, in which a small multicultural company play with remarkable stamina a huge variety of roles across the first three of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, follows Adjoa Andoh’s all women of colour revival of Richard II earlier this year. It further advances Terry’s timely project of dramatising Shakespeare’s epic history cycle in ways that aim to reveal new versions of our national story.

Hal of a performance: Sarah Amankwah as the young Henry

So what do we gain? Primarily Terry herself, in the role of Hotspur in Henry IV Part One and who, as that intoxicatingly charismatic rebel leader, gives a soul-soaring performance.

There’s fine work too from Helen Schlesinger as Falstaff, not quite the drunk of popular imagination but an altogether sharper, sassier figure, even if his relationship with Sarah Amankwah’s clear-sighted Hal rarely feels as complicated as it ought, and contains no hint of any lost maternal connection.

What you miss, across all three plays, is a sense of an integrated overarching idea.

You feel its absence in the lack of shape and tension imposed by directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes on the two plays that follow — a recurring problem under Terry’s favoured ensemble approach.

Schlesinger can’t find the emotional depth in Falstaff to ground the oddly dissipated second half of Henry IV, and Hal’s eventual rejection of his former brother-in-arms fails to deliver the necessary kick in the guts. A more rewarding moment comes when Philip Arditti, doubling up in the role of Mistress Doll and Henry IV, wipes off his lipstick and puts on his crown.

Amankwah comes into her own as the young Henry V, commanding the stage and audience with every word. Henry V is a defining part of Britain’s myth of itself, yet this is a curiously bland production, lacking action, pathos and never properly on board with the play’s interrogation of power and politics.

In the end this is the paradox at the heart of all three productions — each engaged with perceptions of power and gender but at the expense of a larger engagement with England itself.