Poster featuring a woman with uplifted arm, standing in a circle.

June 10, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part 2, or Falstaff @ Shakespeare’s Globe

As much as I love 2 Henry IV as a stand-alone play, I often find it suffers a little when presented as the middle part of a trilogy. Whereas 1 Henry IV describes a clear arc for Falstaff, in addition to excellent set pieces for the other characters, and Henry V has a stand-alone narrative coherence dominated by a single figure, 2 Henry IV is much more of an ensemble play. Subtitling it ‘Falstaff’, as the Globe ensemble did for this production, draws attention to that character’s climactic dismissal, though doesn’t resolve the issue that much of that character’s best material is located in Part 1. Rather than imposing a concept, then, the ensemble leaned into the more wistful, reflective elements, trading on the memories of past glories.

This was most apparent in the Gloucestershire scenes, with Justice Shallow (Sophie Russell) perfectly embodying the tedious old university friend insistent on reminding everyone of that one really good night out. Shallow’s meandering anecdotes even had the effect of leaving Helen Schlesinger’s Falstaff discomfited, particularly as Shallow paused significantly when reminding Falstaff of the night when they lay together in a windmill – ‘No more of that’, the knight firmly replied, sharing a look with the Globe audience.

Wherever one looked in the play, the party was continuing, but with an end-of-the-night vibe that was still funny and yet suggested that it was time to go home. Steffan Donnelly’s Silence had the stand-out comic sequence of the afternoon as he got absolutely plastered, turning the lines of his friends into songs bellowed out from atop a table and while lying on the stage. Eventually he was bodily carried out, straight as a post, but still with enough wherewithal to grab another full cup from the table as he was carried past it. Meanwhile, the recruitment scene had fun with its motley crew, including a mitten-carrying Moldy (Nina Bowers) and Sarah Amankwah playing her only non-Hal part of the trilogy as a cowled Wart with barely enough strength to hold a rifle, but the speed with which two of the recruits bought their way out of service was a reminder of the coming battles. As Philip Arditti’s noble-minded Feeble said, ‘We all owe God a death’. Falstaff’s rejection of that ethos in the previous play was now catching up with him.

Schlesinger’s Falstaff didn’t dominate the production named after him, but still had many of the best bits, including an early entrance climbing down the on-stage ladders singing ‘Alexander Hamilton’, a roaring dismissal of Colin Hurley’s Pistol, and a lovely moment towards the end of the final Gloucester scene where, while lying down, Shallow, Silence and Bardolph all came to lie on top of him in a quietly bizarre little foursome. The emphasis on Falstaff’s illnesses and tiredness were brought out in Schlesinger’s quieter, more reflective performance which seemed to recognise the separation from Hal. And the last scene was played with desperation, Falstaff yelling Hal’s name repeatedly from the pit, and then trying to bluff his way through confidence before yelling in fright as soldiers turned up to take him off to banishment.

The other group of characters to start emerging prominently in this sequence were Falstaff’s retainers. John Leader was a standout as a surprisingly young Bardolph, red-nosed but rarely seen drinking. Bardolph lacked any sort of guile, fretful at the arrival of soldiers and unsubtle in his underhand dealings with recruits buying their way to freedom. His quavering tone, blissful indulgence when safe, and general air of surprise at everything happening around him, were always amusing. Hurley’s Pistol, with seemingly every square inch of his coat covered in a medal, leered over the women of the Eastcheap tavern and roared his way into a fight with Falstaff after chasing Arditt’s Doll about the stage. And Jonathan Broadbent continued to be a comic highlight as the gloriously dressed Mistress Quickly, keeping up a haranguing of the troublemakers in her house that was nicely offset by her tender encouragement of Doll to look after Falstaff.

Michelle Terry had only joined the ensemble for 1 Henry IV, and the lack of an eleventh body was felt in a doubling system that became quite cluttered and disruptive at times. Doll running off after Falstaff, for instance, was undermined by Arditti instead remaining onstage and slowly changing his costume and wiping off lipstick to be dressed as Henry. With very little thematic coherence to the doubling, the somewhat laborious changes felt like an attempt to make an exigency seem like an aesthetic choice, but the onstage character shifts were too sporadic and randomly distributed to feel cohesive. Better in this vein was the entrance of most of the company as Rumour to start the play, speaking the lines from the stage and pit and setting up a sense of the dispersed nature of lies.

The most cohesive sections were the more sober sequences of reflection. The two Northumberland scenes carried weight as the Earl (Broadbent) learned of his son’s death, and then negotiated his next actions with his wife (Donnelly) and Lady Percy (Leaphia Darko). Arditti, meanwhile, took a quiet, mournful tone for his soliloquy as he imagined his people sleeping, and then sat quietly with Hal after his initial distress at the disappearance of the crown, Hal and his father bonding over the weight of responsibility that bore down on them both. Amankwah eased seamlessly into the new role as King, entirely uncompromising with Falstaff, firm with the Chief Justice, and warmly authoritative with his brothers, with a clarity of tone and purpose that were immediately monarchical.

The conspiracy plot passed quite simply, mostly serving as a vehicle for Donnelly’s Prince John to come into his own, alongside Broadbent’s briskly serious Westmorland. Russell’s Archbishop of Canterbury presented as a principled but fundamentally trusting antagonist, and was a joyful in the acceptance of the rebels’ demands as his co-conspirators were anxious. The sudden arrest of the chief conspirators showed John and Westmorland’s more aggressive side, the rebellion quashed uncompromisingly, with John in particular wanting to stress that Canterbury’s demands would be met with, but grabbing the man strongly regardless.

2 Henry IV is a more reflective play, and the company’s ensemble treatment served it well, allowing each element to shine on its own terms without striving to organise these into a more linear shape. While the casting and blocking were messier than in the productions on either side of it, the tonal shift of the pause between wars and the transition from play-time to leadership, all worked well, and cleared the decks for Henry V.

Posted in Theatre review