Reviews: Henry IV Part I (or Hotspur) and Part II (or Falstaff)

by Lynn on July 14, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, England.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes

Designed by Jessica Worrall

Composed by Tayo Akinbode

Cast: Sarah Amankwah

Philip Arditti

Nina Bowers

Jonathan Broadbent

Leaphia Darko

Steffan Donnelly

Colin Hurley

John Leader

Sophie Russell

Helen Schlesinger

Michelle Terry

Toy Theatre. Theatre for people who don’t go to the theatre. Shakespeare for people who don’t go to Shakespeare’s plays.

The Stories. Henry IV Part I or Hotspur concerns the wayward  Prince Hal, his wily, opportunist friend Falstaff, Hotspur and the politics of the court. Henry IV, Part II or Falstaff concerns Falstaff and his opportunistic goings on, trying to curry favour with Prince Hal and when Hal becomes Henry V all bets are off. The wayward prince becomes a thoughtful, smart-thinking king cutting off his former drinking buddy, Falstaff. The reason for the two subtitles of or Hotspur and or Falstaff is to focus on who the play is really about. I’m knitting my eyebrows here, but never mind.

The Productions. Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes direct these two Henrys. The productions are big, boisterous and play almost always to the audience, most often to the groundlings. Those close to the stage or with their arms folded on the stage are very involved. Lines are directed to specific people in the crowd. There is little character development and certainly no depth of investigation in the text.

Often characters are on either end of the wide stage bellowing at each other, I guess to give a sense that the space is being used. The acting is uneven and that’s being polite. Michelle Terry is a swaggering, forceful Hotspur (in Henry IV Part One) but strangely her voice is a monotone of gushing dialogue. I have seen her much better elsewhere and I don’t mean Shakespeare’s Globe.

Helen Schlesinger as Falstaff has a field day in Henry IV Part I and II. Schlesinger is by far the best actor in this ensemble. She knows how to speak the language and has a voice that is full of colour, nuance and shading. As a slim woman in a fattish costume she scurries all over the stage. And she knows how to play the audience like a pro, especially the groundlings.  Over the two parts she takes a can of pop or beer from one person close to the stage and takes a swig and gives back the can. She goes to the other end of the stage and takes a glass of beer from another patron and takes a swig of that. She tries the cans of several young people leaning on the stage, and finds the cans empty. She says as an aside, “the youth of today…..” A man in the groundlings took pity on her and poured her a glass of wine and gave it to her. She downed it in one. She goes to another groundling and takes the long can out of her hands and reads what’s on it and says: “What on earth?!” and gives it back (huge laugh). She high-fives several people close to the stage.

I am grateful for her presence but then she does something that makes me groan, cover my eyes and lower my head in despair. She climbs down a ladder from the second level of the stage to the stage singing: “Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.” Sigh. I’m thinking, “Oh please, you have to be better than that.” And the interesting thing is that no one in the audience laughs or titters or gives any indication they know this is a reference to the mega-hit Hamilton. Of course in Shakespeare’s Globe this is a ‘theatre’ for people who don’t go to the theatre, so how would they know or care about Hamilton?

Finally, finally, I know I cannot come back to this place. I can’t do that to myself anymore and be angry at seeing such shoddy work of such a brilliant playwright.

Comment. The actors are listed in a clump under ‘Actors’ in the program not according to the character(s) they play. Not helpful. Only in the actors’ biographies do we see the characters they play. One excuse from a person selling the programmes is that actors play many characters across the plays and might take up too much room. Really? Those characters are listed in their biographies. Is it part of this ‘ensemble’ sensibility, that there are no stars here, that they all bow together? What does that have to do with the audience’s need to know who is playing whom, as it’s done in every other theatre in the free world? Maddening.

 I have been going to Shakespeare’s Globe every year but one since it re-opened in 1997. I usually see two or three productions there. I did the proper thing in the beginning, standing in the Yard as a groundling. The first production I saw there was Henry V with Mark Rylance as Henry. It was thrilling.

I looked up at the people sitting in the seats on the first level and saw a man who could not possibly have been there. I saw Sam Wanamaker. He rested his chin in his cupped hand, the elbow was on the railing and he was smiling broadly. It could not have been him—the savior, the force, behind the creation of the place, because Sam Wanamaker died 18 months before Shakespeare’s Globe opened. But there he was, same face, same white hair, and same smile. I wrote to Zoë Wanamaker, his daughter and said I saw her father’s ghost. She wrote back. It was her uncle, her father’s twin brother. Spooky, but still moving.

Mark Rylance was the first artistic director of the re-opened Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, acting in many of the productions in his quirky, odd way, playing way up to the top balcony and the groundlings in equal measure. The productions always ended in a dance (a tradition that has carried on) and the joy on his face was wonderful. People flocked and packed the place out for his 10 year tenure, setting that popular attendance for most performances.

He had productions acted by an all-male cast with men playing the women’s parts. Memorable was the all-male version of Twelfth Night, as it was suggested might have been done in Shakespeare’s day. It looked beautiful. (It was directed by Tim Carroll, now the artistic director of The Shaw Festival.) Rylance played Olivia in a black gown, curly auburn wig and ruff like Queen Elizabeth I. He was mesmerizing and the star of the show. But as my learned friend Robert Cushman wisely said, “But Lynn, you know that Olivia isn’t the star of the show?” So true. But when Rylance is in a show, no matter the part, he becomes the star. Hmmmm. And of course having a 45 year old man play a woman in a Shakespeare play has nothing to do with how it was in Shakespeare’s day because teenage boys played the women’s parts. Teenage boys. Tim Carroll talked of “Original Practices” as they were in Shakespeare’s day—candle light, lights on for most productions (at night), men playing the women’s parts. He added that we actually didn’t know how productions were in Shakespeare’s day and he could be making it up. Hmmm.

Rylance hired young actors out of drama school. The direction varied in quality as did the quality of the productions. Interestingly the costumes were exquisite and made with meticulous care as they might have been done in Shakespeare’s day. The music was wonderful. There was/is a person in charge of text. Why then were the productions so lacking in attention to good acting and direction?

The next Artistic Director was Dominic Dromgoole who was a better artistic director than he was a director. He hired better actors and directors. The productions were an improvement but nothing that knocked my socks off.

Then came the brilliant Emma Rice, the iconoclastic director with a vivid imagination to head the place. She directed two stunning productions I saw during her tenure: Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that were beautifully acted (Meow Meow played Titania and Zubin Varla played Oberon) smartly realized, thoughtful, cheeky, inventive and eye-popping. Glorious theatre. But she had the audacity to want there to be a different lighting plot for every production. The powers that be wanted the place to be pure, that there be the same simple lighting plot for all productions as they said it was in Shakespeare’s day. Really? Huh? Middle-aged men playing women was ok, but varying the lighting plots was not. So they fired her shortly into her contract. Disgraceful.

Then last year came Michelle Terry as the present Artistic Director. She has acted at the Globe and elsewhere. She has always been a memorable actress when I saw her at the National so choosing her was interesting. She is not a director but she is an actress with an affinity for Shakespeare.


In her first year she created a repertory company of actors including herself (and Schlesinger) that would be separate from the regular company. They did a few productions (Hamlet and As You Like It) in which the men played the women’s parts (for the most part) and the women played the women’s parts. ‘Why?’ is a question I will always ask regarding this silly decision—silly because for the most part, the acting was dreadful. A six foot tall actor played Rosalind and screamed everything. Orlando was played by a five foot tall woman who had no clue about the character. There was also an actress who was hearing impaired who either could read lips or not depending on who was talking to her and who signed to others who might sign back. There was supposed to be a screen that indicated her dialogue that did not show all of her speeches. Ridiculous. What is to be gained by this gender bending just for the cheeky sake of it? And this year we have Henry IV Part I and Part II.

Much has been written in the programmes of the rehearsal process of this ensemble. They have been working for ten weeks on the plays, doing games and exercises in the rehearsal hall, a place that is sacred for exploration, discovery and delving deeply. But when I read stuff like this from an actor who plays various small roles, I knit my eyebrows: “It’s like a laboratory for the text—we do textual exercises in the rehearsal room without necessarily making massive decisions about the scenes or the set. That’s one of  the main principles of the process.”

Another actor is quoted as saying: “I suppose the overriding idea is that of discovering and starting with nothing: with conventional theories you start with an idea of where and how you’re setting it with a particular vision and direction, but we started with nothing. The only thing we knew was that we were going to put on these plays and discover them all together as a whole group.” The general feeling reading this stuff is something like “touchy-feely-fuzzy-drivel.”

The result from this audience member is relentless bellowing, barely scratching the surface of the characterizations and little sense of the plays.

Over the years I have gone to the Globe out of duty it seems to me. I realize that many people (actors etc.) talk about how seeing theatre there changed their lives about Shakespeare, the theatre etc. Not me. I can’t recall any other theatre anywhere where for performance after performance I’ve never seen another actor in the audience. Never. I have spoken to too many actors who say they have never gone there and never will. It’s the lack of quality they resent. And perhaps expecting quality is the problem. It’s the experience that seems to be the thing.

One doesn’t go to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare done properly or done well. It’s not one of the world’s great theatres, or one of London’s great theatres. Rather, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a tourist attraction like Madame Tussaud’s or the National Gallery that you ‘tick’ to prove that you ‘did London.’

Shakespeare’s Globe is a place that fools people into thinking that they are seeing theatre as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day. Yes, fooling. The acting in Shakespeare’s day would have been good enough to hold the attention of the rabble in the Yard (the groundlings). In that rabbling would be people selling all manner of goods including themselves. The sword-play on stage would have to be masterful to convince the experts in such activity in the spiffy, ‘rich” seats.

Now we get often barely adequate actors barking, bellowing and screaming their lines to give the impression they want to be audible to the audience, rather than making the audience listen to them. After all they do have an attentive audiences now who are silent as they listen.

But I can’t do this anymore. I’ve had enough. After considering all the productions I’ve seen here I can count on one hand the number of memorable productions that thrilled me. That’s not good enough. The rest are either forgettable or annoyingly dreary.

I won’t miss the uncomfortable seats (even when one rents a cushion). I won’t miss broiling in the sun, even in the seated second row. And definitely I won’t miss the toy theatre, the disappointing productions and the lack of detail in realizing the plays, the depressing lack of acting and directing ability.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre presents:

 Began: May 11, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 11, 2019.

Running times: about 2 hours, 30 minutes each.

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1 Brian Stein July 15, 2019 at 1:19 am

Last year did you see Mark Rylance in Othello? The woman next to me, like you, had been a longtime supporter, but after watching Rylance play Iago as a buffoon she said she’d had enough. I couldn’t agree with her more.