King Henry IV part I, Act 2, Scene 4
More Shakespeare! More RSC for that matter, although this time in London, rather than Stratford-Upon-Avon, and a play I’d never seen or read before, Henry IV parts I and II. Not that I went into the Barbican completely without expectation; what Bard-nerd hasn’t heard of the brilliance of Falstaff? And, of course, Henry IV contains a lot of Prince Hal, who goes on to become one of my favourite Shakespearean heroes of all: King Henry V. Swoon.
So with these high expectations, I have to say I was a little disappointed by the actual play script; although, as with almost all RSC productions, it was beautifully performed, with a strong cast, lovely scenery, great lighting etc, etc. It just felt like the script didn’t bear up to all of this – or at least, it wasn’t worth being almost six hours long! Part One at least has some good comedic moments, a rebellious uprising and a final, bloody battle to keep you interested; Part Two, however, is simply the story of endings, “not with a bang, but with a whimper”. The King is dying, a new rebellion is thwarted almost before it can get going, Falstaff and his band of drunkards and thieves are up to their usual tricks, but Prince Hal isn’t there nearly enough to ramp up the comedic factor. It’s the ending not only of Henry IV’s reign, but also of that of Falstaff, and this basically leads to a bit of an anti-climax.
Saying this, there are some beautiful lines in the play, and some of the characters are brilliantly painted. How can I carry on without mentioning Flastaff, the drunken, thieving, incredibly likeable knight, played in this production by Antony Sher? Sher performed the part with great wit and charm, and I loved his rich, throaty voice; the voice of someone who has indulged a little too much in sensual pleasures – you could hear the effect of the smoking, drinking, eating and general “hallooing” every time he spoke, as well as the sound of someone always juts about to break into laughter. I especially loved the scene where Falstaff continually exaggerates his great daring and bravery against “a hundred” robbers who attack him in the night, to the great delight of the real robbers, Hal and Ned Poins.
Hal himself was played with great charisma by Alex Hassell. With one of the best entrances anyone could ask for (a bed, two girls and Flastaff were all involved) he portrayed the troublesome young Prince with sensitivity, showing both his penchant for drink, sex and mischief, and the stirrings of the nature of a true King. The bedside scene between him and his father Henry IV (Jasper Britton) was particularly poignant; even more so when contrasted with the earlier hilarity between him and his best friend Poins (a very likeable Sam Marks – what happened to him at the end?!). His banishment of Falstaff was also quite moving, especially after having been so powerfully foreshadowed in Part One, as a seemingly ruthless farewell to his surrogate father. Hopefully, Gregory Doran will put on Henry V next year with Hassell in the lead part!
Trevor White as Harry Hotspur in Part One was also very impressive, with massive amounts of energy and force. His bickering relationship with his wife (played by Jennifer Kirby) was funnily modern, although it almost brought to mind Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar at some points. His constant vitality was what kept the ‘rebellion’ plot interesting, and Part Two definitely suffered from his absence (although some of it was felt when White returned as Lord Mowbury). Just one small criticism – why on earth give him bleached white-blond hair?!
Apart from that, though, the staging was very well done, the simple wooden arches becoming a tavern in Eastcheap and then, through clever use of lighting, the stone pillars of Henry’s castle. The lighting and music really helped add and change the mood better than anything else could, and kept my interest despite the lack of plot.
However, the tavern scene in Part Two needs some changes, in my opinion. Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are played with great character by Paola Dionisotti and Nia Gwynne, and I also really liked the amiable Bardolph (Joshua Richards). However, together with Falstaff and Falstaff’s page (played either by Luca Saraceni-Gunner or Jonathan Williams surprisingly well – where do the RSC get such clearly spoken children from?!) they are placed on a stage within a stage, supposedly in a room above the main tavern. An incredibly long, supposedly comedic, scene then takes place, involving a clearly high, drunk “swaggerer” Pistol (Antony Byrne), lots of shouting and insults and just general madness. The trouble is, it’s all just a bit too mental for anyone to understand. The staging is far too small for all the characters; funny at first, yes, but after a little just tiresome. It felt like every piece of movement was calculated to set up a kind of ‘ta-dah!’ freeze-frame – ‘look, audience, how clever we have been! Our chaos has somehow become order especially for you!’ Personally, I would have just given them more space to move in – or even cut out the Pistol scenes all together.
(I did really like Byrne, however, in his first role, as the Earl of Worcester. It’s just a shame that, like Harry Percy, he wasn’t around for Part Two.)
The was one other particularly odd moment – this time in Part One. Douglas, your typical bearded, fearsome, blue-painted Scot was about to kill King Henry IV, when suddenly Hal turns up and threatens him a bit. What does Douglas do, having already killed plenty of people, and definitely being a better fighter than the two Henrys? He walks off stage, whistling and swinging his battleaxe merrily. I still can’t quite work out what happened there to be honest. Still, I suppose if it’s written in the script, what can you do?!
These plays, then, show off the RSC’s great acting skill, and beautifully directed production talent, but fall a little short simply because of the script itself. As Jamie Parker once said, everyone has their own Shakespeare, and unfortunately, Henry IV isn’t mine. That’s not to say it was a waste of time going – especially to Part One which is definitely the more entertaining of the two – but simply that if you’re new to Shakespeare, it’s probably best to see one with a little more plot.
Henry IV parts I and II (RSC) at the Barbican Theatre: 3/5 stars
(although if we’re going on just acting and production value, it would have been four)
(Ooh, and kudos to the Barbican, whose theatre I love anyway – such spacious seats! We got upgraded both nights from Upper Circle to Stalls! Not too shabby!)