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June 9, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part 1, or Hotspur @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Following the revisioning of England offered by the Globe’s Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker, a different creative team imagined an England that was still under construction in Hotspur, the first in a trilogy performed by a single eleven-person ensemble. The Globe itself seemed partly dismantled, with partially built pillars, panels missing from the tiring house, scaffolding around one of the main pillars. Around the auditorium were displayed banners with the flags of the various counties and dynasties of England. The nation of Henry IV (Philip Arditti) was already one of divided loyalties struggling to pull together into a finished state.

Henry IV Part 1 was given the alternative title Hotspur, with the focus of this stripped-down version placed on Michelle Terry’s titular rebel, and the ensemble gathered together to sing a song in honour of his victory against Douglas to begin the play. Despite not emerging until the third scene, Terry immediately took charge of the stage when she arrived with a performance so big that it suggested the missing bits of the stage were the scenery she had already chewed up. This Hotspur was a man who brought about his own tragedy through his motor-mouthing and inability to listen. Terry’s performance saw Hotspur shouting, sneering, mimicking, play-acting, in a literally breath-taking performance that left no space for breath – either his or others. When Northumberland (Jonathan Broadbent) finally got a word in edgeways and accused him of breaking into a ‘woman’s mood’, there was a roar of recognition that Terry acknowledged, the cross-gendered performance intersecting with the accusation that Hotspur’s performance was itself breaking boundaries.

Hotspur was a charismatic, fiery leader, brilliantly set against similarly strong performances. Douglas (Nina Bowers) was a rabble-rouser of similar power, helping provoke Hotspur’s further rage when temperance might have been wiser. Sophie Russell’s Glendower did his own grandstanding, appealing to the scale of the Globe in talking about the fires that reigned at his nativity, and Hotspur was more interested in ensuring that Glendower’s own arrogance was punctured than in actually claiming the extra land he claimed to want. And in two nicely modulated scenes, Hotspur played off Lady Percy (Leaphia Darko), one of the few people able to shut him up for more than a few moments. Darko’s passionate performance employed both physical restraint and a voice matched to Hotspur’s own to break through to him, and while Hotspur still cast her off, he was eventually left kneeling before her, his tears breaking through his bravado and revealing something of his own insecurity. When Darko returned later as Walter Blunt to treat with Hotspur, the dynamic set up between the two actors earlier paid off in Hotspur’s angry dismissal of the messenger.

The complete conviction of Hotspur was a nice contrast to the elder authority figures, both on his own side – Broadbent’s calm, dignified Northumberland and Steffan Donnelly’s oily Worcester – and on the other. Arditti played King Henry IV as a surprisingly energetic and immature figure, who underwent extreme emotional shifts and showed his own anxiety through outbursts and something closer to sulks. This was an unhappy King, the fractured nature of his state mirroring his own vacillating performance, and his anxiety about Prince Hal (Sarah Amankwah) suggested that he was worrying about a legacy when he hadn’t been able even to consolidate his own rule.

Amankwah’s Hal, meanwhile, was entirely sure of himself. This severe yet playful, ebullient but clear-spoken prince was a master of fitting himself to the mood, but also seemed entirely cohesive unto himself, a prince who gave his early soliloquy without breaking his stride, letting the audience know what he had planned without needing to think through it. The emphasis here was on multifacetedness rather than development; Hal’s actions in Eastcheap were neither feigned nor reckless, but those of a man enjoying himself while in complete confidence of his ability to step up when the time came. 

The diverse ensemble, with six women to five men, and the women cast in the largest roles, allowed for some fascinating power dynamics. Broadbent, in drag as an Irish Mistress Quickly, at one point paused to allow for audience laughter as he swore on his identity as a ‘true woman’, shrugging in response to the giggles. The ‘true women’ were running rings around the rest of the ensemble, most obviously in the trick played by Hal and Poins on the Gadshill thieves. The brotherhood between these two was established through their handshakes, high-fives, and attitude of energetic camaraderie, and the doubling of Poins and Douglas gave Bowers a lovely shared role in being the catalyst to both Hal and Hotspur’s rasher actions. The scene at Glendower’s camp also gave John Leader a moment to shine as the graceful Lady Mortimer. She sang to Colin Hurley’s Mortimer in Welsh, accompanied by the Globe musicians who came onto the main stage to accompany her. Her sad, lilting song, which continued over Hotspur and Lady Percy’s bickering, was an early lament for the coming dead, and she was left alone onstage at the scene’s end to close the first half as she left, still quietly singing her lonely lament.

The wild card in all of this was Falstaff, in Helen Schlesinger’s joyful performance. Padded out and ebullient, Falstaff immediately curried favour with the groundlings. He kept nicking sips from audience members’ beers, complaining about helicopters, and asking the onstage BSL interpreter for translations of specific words before announcing he could do the interpretation just as well. While dissolute, Falstaff was presented as a good-hearted lover of life whose appeal to Hal’s own exuberant spirit was clear. As much as Hal always kept a critical distance from Falstaff’s excesses, the scenes in which the two bantered with one another clearly brought them both great enjoyment; an enjoyment disrupted by the pull of war which changed the nature of their relationship. Falstaff’s gentle expression to Hal of his wish that it was bedtime was a moving moment, the knight appealing to his sparring partner in a flash of honest apprehension.

The wars themselves separated Hal and Falstaff convincingly. Staged as a series of excursions, with liveried soldiers running across the stage bearing flags, the ‘battle’ separated everyone out, even to the point of Douglas and Walter Blunt having their one-on-one knife fight played out at a distance from one another, the two slashing the air until Blunt fell. Falstaff, resplendently plumed, ran about and hid, taking a convincing tumble during Hal and Hotspur’s final duel. The fight between these two was surprisingly brief, and involved fuller contact, until Hal finally managed to slash Hotspur’s leg. The unusual injury allowed Hotspur to sit up, sharing eye contact with Hal and even nodding and smiling as Hal finished his dying speech with ‘worms’, only then finally falling into death. The warm connection between the two as Hotspur laughed at his own hubris gave their meeting some dignity, even if Falstaff’s subsequent plunging of his own sword into Hotspur’s body was an unusually visceral moment of desecration.

As much as the ‘play extempore’ brought Hal and Falstaff together in their shared improvisation and tit-for-tat indictments of one another, the second half put them firmly on different tracks. Hal’s approach to the wars was instantly heroic, including standing up to Worcester, saving his father, and chivalrously giving his brother John the management of the hostages. Falstaff, by contrast, was rendered silly, squirting his water pistol across the audience and looking genuinely surprised when Hal agreed to cover for him in his lie that he had killed Hotspur. The separation at this point was cordial, the Prince showing his maturity and Falstaff looking unsure for the first time about the security of their future relationship. The closing song brought everyone into accord, but the references to ‘time’ suggested that the respite would only be temporary, even as Henry reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury was raising troops. And for all of Falstaff’s attempts to convince himself and the audience that honour was nothing but ‘air’, the honour Hal showed on the battlefield and in his dealings with his brother and father suggested the rift to come.

Posted in Theatre review