One of the pillars of Michelle Terry’s second summer season at Shakespeare’s Globe is the play most closely intertwined with ideas of nationhood, English patriotism and valour in a time of war. Terry herself has played the title role before – quite spectacularly at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Here, Henry is played by Sarah Amankwah, one of the stand-out performers of the new Globe ensemble.
In her red beret, red jacket and combats, Amankwah looks every inch the soldier king. She’s vigorous and dignified, yet has a sense of stillness. She’s calculating, commanding and convincing as a leader of men. A lively Hal in Henry IV Part I and II, she comes into her own in this play. She’s a natural orator, at ease with the verse. As the staging is simple, the costumes by Jessica Worrall do a lot of the expositional legwork, robes and banners flipping from the crimson of the House of Lancaster to the blue of France.
As with both parts on Henry IV, an emphasis is placed on textual clarity. This production, however, more than those that proceeded it, pushes the idea that anyone can play any role in these most mythic of plays, exploding the notion that they need to be cast literally to make them comprehensible.
This is most apparent in the scenes in which Amankwah’s Henry woos Katherine of France, who is played by Colin Hurley in a teal dress (the Open Air production did something similar with Ben Wiggins playing the role opposite Terry). Hurley’s is an earnest, gentle performance. There’s nothing pantomimic about it. It makes you more keenly aware of the negotiations of status and power that underscore these exchanges – that, one could argue, underscore all courting rituals. It’s a bold choice, it draws some laughs initially, but all theatre is an invitation to imagine, and the casting of these plays continually makes the audience think about power, who has it and who doesn’t, then and now.
If only this willingness to be radical and take risks with the plays, to recognise that experimentation and accessibility are not mutually exclusive, extended further than the casting. The staging could definitely stand to be a bit more daring and playful. Under directors Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes, opportunities for pathos are left to skitter past and the production suffers from a lack of momentum, though that’s partly the nature of the play (no one’s to blame but Shakespeare for the leek-eating scene). Though Henry V lacks the pep and energy of the Globe’s Henry IV Part I, Amankwah emerges as a performer of real skill and grace – she is majestic.