This year is surely the year racial equality triumphed in the London Theatre. The principle of colour blind casting is now widely accepted, while many great productions explore black themes.
The National Theatre is showcasing a wonderful production of the Windrush story, Small Island.
The top musical Hamilton retells the American Revolution casting Jason Pennycooke as Thomas Jefferson.
Giles Terara has left that successful show to star as a black version of Ibsen’s Andreas Kroll. Kwame Kwei-Armah has taken over as artistic director of the Young Vic’s production of London’s first all-black Death of a Salesman.
He promises a black female Hamlet, Cush Jumbo, next year. But by then she will be old hat as the Globe has seen both a black woman playing Richard II, Adjoa Andoh, and now, in this production, Sarah Amankwah as Henry V.
Anyone who feared Brexit meant “little Englander” mentality was rising can rest easy as regards the London theatre.
This point is especially important in the choice of Amankwah to play Henry V. The play, subtitled here Harry England, is in many ways central to notions of Englishness and patriotism.
It is often said that Shakespeare invented “Englishness” with his depiction of our triumph at Agincourt. The battle itself was an extraordinary event where the English defeated a much larger force through skill and daring.
The 1944 film version starring Laurence Olivier was a vital morale booster as young Englishmen prepared to land on the beaches of Normandy. “Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more….”
Amankwah is much more comfortable as Henry V than she was in the prequel plays where she played the Prince of Wales. In those she never quite captured the youthful dilemmas Prince Hal was struggling with, nor the nuances of his relationship with father-figure Falstaff.
The commanding future King shone through too brightly. This is not a problem in Henry V when we finally see him (her) assume control. Her delivery is suitably majestic, and she brings out the colder and more calculating aspects of Henry, if never quite capturing the inspiring character of the hero of Agincourt.
The play itself is always demanding for any director – “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?”
In this production the odd bit of pyrotechnics is used to give us a sense of the battle scene, but as ever the audience is required to use its imagination. The same is also true with artistic director Michelle Terry’s ruthless gender blind casting (she herself plays Hotspur in the prequel, and last year played Hamlet).
This is particularly demanding when we have young Princess Katherine played by a middle aged man in a dress. Colin Hurley tries his best without so much as a wig.
The comedy roles are well played, as one would expect of the Globe, although the talented Helen Schlesinger is underused after carrying Falstaff so well in the prequels.
John Leader successfully reprises his role as Bardolph, showing how well colour blind casting can work.
The ever present Colin Hurley carries off Pistol, and Steffan Donnelly milks the leak-wielding Welsh cameo of Fluellen for all its worth. There is certainly something special about watching Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe. But for those coming new to the play the overall effect is confusing, and this production is not “inclusive” of an inexperienced audience.
But for hardened theatre-goers, who are perhaps jaded, and are looking for a new interpretation of Henry V, this is certainly worth seeing. Henry V (Harry England) plays at the Globe Theatre until October 11.
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