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Henry IV Part 1, or Hotspur

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
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Theatre should look more like the country and where better to do that than in a Shakespeare history play about the making of a nation. But given only 15% of the characters in Henry IV Part 1 are women, that requires some imaginative gender casting.

In this Globe production, major male characters are performed by women with the men playing two of the female characters. It is the most distinctive feature of a show that has been constructed by the theatre department ensemble under the guiding eye of two directors.

The resulting performance is clear, conventional and anchored around the characters of Falstaff and Hotspur rather than attempting to give the play any particular meaning, any distinctive vision of nation building, class divisions, war or anything else.

Since even the play’s reflections on the horrors of war are dodged, it didn’t surprise me to find Falstaff’s usually powerful and moving speech on the eve of battle about the cruel absurdities of so-called honour being treated as a comic engagement with the audience. About the only moment in the play where we are encouraged to be moved by a casualty of conflict is in the death of Hotspur.

One consequence of the production’s lack of connection with the world is the lack of depth to the characters portrayed. The most effective is Michelle Terry as Hotspur who gives the role a passionate clarity and wit that constantly engages the audience. But it had peculiarities I didn’t understand. Why at times have Hotspur flailing his arms in the air and jumping up and down in a manner I have only ever seen in those under the age of twelve?

Other performances are less effective. Philip Arditti as Henry IV seems to skate the surface of the text, his mood often petulant, his words sometimes flippant.

Although Sarah Amankwah as Hal and Helen Schlesinger as Falstaff give strong, watchable performances, you will find it hard to imagine they have had any kind of friendship. Indeed, at times they deliver their lines to each other like strangers who have not long since met.

Helen takes to the stage like a stand-up comedian looking for laughs as if that is the only aspect of Falstaff we need to be concerned about. And it mostly gets the laughs but there is no depth, no sense of a sly intelligence that recognises the worthlessness of his social class. There is just the lively pursuit of laughs.

The production is entertaining without ever giving the sense that it is going anywhere special. Its reliance on a passionate Hotspur and easy laughs from Falstaff is a very narrow basis on which to rest a great play.

Keith Mckenna