Michelle Terry kicks off her second summer season as artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe with a continuation of the history cycle that started with Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Terry has revived the ensemble model of her first season with a company of 10 actors plus two directors, Federay Holmes and Sarah Bedi, developing the plays together.
As with last year, the staging is uncluttered and there are no big overarching directorial concepts, other than a fluid approach to casting – the language of power placed in the mouths of women. On more than one occasion we see the actors don the costume of their characters, switching crowns for the garb of soldiers.
The first of the Henry plays, subtitled Hotspur, has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Terry herself. She’s fantastic in the title role, vivid and intense. Clad in a black duster jacket, her tattooed “hot Lord Percy” lives up to his name. He’s arrogant, witty and withering, but also tender, delivering one speech while tousling the hair of a toddler in the audience.
Terry has a supreme stage-sense coupled with a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s Globe as a space, its verticality as well as its capacity for intimacy. She has eloquent hands and can charm a laugh from the audience merely by raising an eyebrow. Her Hotspur exudes charisma but is also a bit of a cad and a bully, callous and emotionally manipulative in her scenes with Leaphia Darko’s Lady Percy.
So good is Terry that at times her performance threatens to unbalance the production. Henry IV is a funny play, one of Shakespeare’s funniest, but the Falstaff plot is where the comedy usually resides. Here, Terry’s performance generates most of the laughter, and the production sags when she’s off stage, though things perk up in the tighter second half.
Helen Schlesinger plays Falstaff, not as a ruddy, corpulent clown but a more human figure, her delivery bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jennifer Saunders. Sarah Amankwah’s Hal is also a commanding presence. But, good as they both are individually, their antics occasionally fall flat.
The costumes are striking, a mixture of leather jackets, flags worn as scarfs and billowing trousers – historical costume colliding with contemporary dress. The plight of the women in the play, Darko’s Lady Percy and John Leader as Lady Mortimer, is given more space, with Leader singing a melancholy lament, and the stylised battle scenes, underscored by pulsing drums, are tense.
There are some lovely comic moments too, but it’s Terry’s cocky, complicated Hotspur who illuminates this accessible, enjoyable production. Her death scene, when it comes, is incredibly poignant, a sudden snuffing out of a too-bright flame.