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London Theatre Reviews

Colin Hurley and Steffan Donnelly/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

MORTAL KINGS

By CLAIRE ALLFREE

A cross-casting approach offers a thrilling alternative way to tell our national history, but what's missing is a link to today's Britain.

Out with the white men, in with the women and the people of colour. This has been Michelle Terry's admirable rallying call since she took over from Emma Rice at Shakespeare's Globe, and in Shakespeare's History Plays, which the Globe is gradually staging in chronological order, she has the ideal template with which to forge her manifesto. Here is the deathless story of our troubled isle, as its restlessly conflicted, self-mythologising impulses lay pitiless waste to a series of mortal kings, and as such providing an epic narrative paradigm with which we seek to understand, at any given point, our present moment. At least, that's surely one reason why watching these plays in groups rather than separately remains both the preferred model and a curiously British activity.
 
Terry herself is by far the best advertisement of her agenda-setting approach in this triple serving of the first three Henrys. And as Hotspur in Henry IV Part I, she reveals herself in acting terms to be the venue's first true heir to its inaugural artistic director, the actor Mark Rylance, with whom Terry shares a profound understanding of this mercurial, difficult theatre space. Far from investing Hotspur with idealistic fervour, she instead radiates sulkily restless, adolescent rebellion and callow, self-centred machismo, in the marvellous exchanges with Hotspur's long-suffering wife barely listening to a word Lady Percy says, and radiantly generous in her engagement with the audience. She is a constant joy and the trilogy's absolute high point, which is a pity since the death of Hotspur occurs less than a third of the way through.
 
Elsewhere, the cross-casting under directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes' generally uncertain hands reap fewer rewards. I liked Helen Schlesinger's exuberantly raddled Falstaff – there's something a bit Jennifer Saunders about it – but there's no doubt her performance strains every blubbery sinew to be funny and also lacks the necessary subversive chemistry with Sarah Amankwah's far too serious and sensible looking Hal. Nina Bowers is indefatigable in a number of roles, but the trilogy is in trouble by the time we've reached Henry IV Part II, never Shakespeare's easiest play to dramatise and here feeling seriously at sea, an enervating drift of jostling tones. The most poignant moment is not Hal's eventual, imperious rejection of Falstaff, which barely resonates, but the moment in which Philip Arditti's Mistress Doll wipes off his lipstick and, taking the crown, transforms into the ailing Henry VI.
 
Happily, Amankwah comes into her own once that crown is atop her own head in Henry V. Slick and no nonsense in natty military beret and waistcoat, she is in absolute command both of Shakespeare's language and the French. You wait, as the Dauphin delivers his casket of tennis balls, in delighted anticipation for her response, and it doesn't disappoint – a return volley of sarcastic invective that implies Agincourt has been won right there. Which is just as well since the vocal clarity in this Henry V by far outweighs its dramatic excitement, with Amankwah's St Crispin's Day speech far more thrilling to listen to than any of the action is to watch. Asking our imaginations to fill the Globe with visions of horses “printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth” is all very well, but the directors need to do some of the work too. Which brings us to the fundamental weakness of these Henry productions. Terry's cross-casting approach offers thrilling alternative ways of telling our national history, but there's not much sense here of a wider engagement with what these plays, with their mighty understanding of the relationship between power, kingship and internal division, have to say about poor old imperilled Britain today.