Christopher Walker talks Shakespeare: Henry IV (parts I and II) when boys and girls, and men and women came out to play…


For all lovers of Shakespeare there is something quite wonderful about an evening at his theatre – The Globe. If you are one of them, then you really must plan a visit.

But, unless you favour the current politicised trend regarding casting, choose your piece carefully. Henry IV (Parts One and Two) indicates just how demanding this trend can be. Not for the actors, but for the audience.

The original Globe presented Shakespeare’s plays at the height of the “English Renaissance,” before being closed down by Cromwell’s puritans in 1644.

The theatre itself is mentioned in the text of Henry V “may we cram within this wooden O”, and so The Globe is now lovingly referred to as “the O.”

The actor Sam Wanamaker worked tirelessly to restore the theatre, raising funds and securing the current Southwark site. It opened to the public in 1997.

The faithful reconstruction has been done well, and as such it is a unique Tudor experience all theatre-lovers should try.

But be warned, you sit on wooden benches and the theatre is open to the elements. In consequence, it is very much a summer venue.

So far so good. In presenting the ‘Henry History Plays” this summer it explores a crucial part of Shakespeare’s work.

These histories are confusing enough, with plenty of battles, political shenanigans and nearly a 100 characters. This becomes even more confusing with a small company where actors must take several roles.

But at the Globe they have doubled the audience confusion with a commitment by the troupe to “democratic theatre”.

This means that casting is not just “colour blind,” but also gender swapping, though not in any pattern. So nearly all the male parts are played by women, though not all of them, and many of the women are played by men.

In addition older actors play younger roles, and younger ones play the older.

Hence you have a large man with a beard playing a child prostitute, a muscly guy portraying a young Welsh girl, and a young American woman acting the old Lord Chief Justice.

Accents are all over the place. It’s confusing.

The actors doing this all seem to be having fun, and some in the audience think it a good laugh.

But unless you know the plays well it is very hard to follow. And this is certainly not for traditionalists. A lot of nuance is lost in the confusion. There is little subtlety.

The most successful is the wonderful Helen Schlesinger who takes on the role of Falstaff, the substitute father figure to young Prince Henry (Sarah Amankwah).

Thank God Helen is also allowed padding to recreate the famously fat character (I was worried he would be portrayed as a Twiggy model in this version).

She interacts well with the audience in this theatre in the round, and makes the most of the comedy the text gives her. Channelling Dawn French at her best.

Michelle Terry is very memorable as the spunky Hotspur, and was much missed after she’d been killed off (making Part Two lacklustre compared to Part One).

Both of them know how to bring Shakespeare’s language to life. Though the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal lacks nuance.

Mention should also be given to Sophie Russell who plays so many characters well.

The more magical elements of the Welsh leader, Owen Glendower, are wonderfully captured by her, and the comedy of Falstaff’s old companion, Master Shallow, is the best we have in Part Two.

Of the men playing women, Jonathan Broadbent carries off Mistress Quickly well, if inexplicably with a strong Northern Irish brogue.

He plays with the audience in true pantomime dame style. And John Leader does his best as Owen’s daughter, but is really mostsuccessful as Bartolph, the comicalred-faced companion of Falstaff.

I would love to see him more. All in all a very interesting approach.

But these are techniques used in drama teaching to enable actors to get inside a character’s head. I’m not sure they should make their way on to the stage.

One thought on “Christopher Walker talks Shakespeare: Henry IV (parts I and II) when boys and girls, and men and women came out to play…

  • 7th July 2019 at 9:25 pm

    I recently saw Henry V at The Globe and found the casting of a diminutive actress as the title character extremely distracting. Although she gave it her best, she could not fill the role of a young man accepting his manhood and his adult responsibilities. It didn’t help that the overlarge crown sat on her ears. Very disappointing.


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