Henry IV Part 1
Royal Shakespeare Company
Saturday 26th April 2014, Matinee
Directed by Greg Doran
Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April, 450 years ago, and Stratford is celebrating the weekend with parades and street theatre. We’re celebrating the week with Hamlet at the Globe on the 23rd, the birthday, and these two on the 26th.
Henry IV Part 1 was the play which sold most copies in his lifetime. Falstaff was his most popular character for his contemporaries. It shows the Elizabethans were as fond of fictionalized history as the readers of Hilary Mantel are today. Michael Billington in the Guardian calls them Shakespeare’s two greatest plays. What? Better than Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream? Better than Richard III and Twelfth Night? I hadn’t thought so before, but … today was a revelation, though only on part one.
It was really difficult to get to see the two parts on one day … and that was a second best, as we would have preferred an evening Part 1 followed by a matinee Part 2, meaning one overnight stay, a drive home early evening, and not the overkill of six hours in a theatre on one day. The concentration levels needed affect how well you absorb them. The RSC really had not thought that scenario through. One result was as we went on line to buy tickets, we got good stalls seats for the afternoon Part 1 in the first minute of Full Member’s Booking, then we went to Part 2 for the evening to find it already virtually full – we could only get the atrocious top gallery with one viciously uncomfortable high seat and one restricted view for the other … of course that Saturday night Part 2 was absorbing Friday night’s Part 1 punters plus Saturday afternoon’s Part 1 crowd.
A tale of two seats
Bad scheduling, we think. When you’re doing a Part 1 and Part 2, and I do know they were written as separate plays, not as a series, it’s worth building in the fact that many people will want to see one after the other. The RSC rehearsed them together, as it says in the programme. They’re united in this review. They also carried over some cast and creatives from Richard II, but not in the same roles.
Falstaff (Anthony Scher) and Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) in a bawdy house
Part 1 is the vigorous play, and it has more comedy than any other history. Except Part Two, but that’s another story. Scher’s Falstaff was a towering achievement, but actually a lot of the Eastcheap comedy is 16th century humour, and so has hard to carry off as lines, though when you look like Scher and sound like him it’s all made to work by visual presence and vocal power. The first sight of Prince Hal, emerging from under a pile of bedclothes with two whores is a great visual effect, improved when Falstaff is revealed at the end of the bed under the sheets. And Alex Hassell does the scene starting in just underpants (which I’m sure were Elizabethan in style) then getting dressed.
The Owen Glendower scene with Hotspur scoffing at the boastful mystical Welshman (Joshua Richards looked and sounded magnificent, and doubled it with Bardolph) works better as comedy to modern ears. The Mortimer /Lady Mortimer exchanges with her in Welsh which he cannot understand were funny, but set off by a song from Nia Gwynne as Lady Mortimer accompanied by harp. Both the Celtic fringe parts, Glendower and the Earl of Douglas were wildly, exotically Celtic in contrast to the Englishmen.
All four lead actors are terrific. Trevor White’s blonde haired hyperactive spunky punky Hostspur is mesmerising, hyped up to fight, laughing with excitement, jumping up and down on the spot, literally bouncing with aggression. Alex Hassell can carry the transition from dissolute Hal to proud Prince Harry with cool aplomb. Scher bustles and rants and limps with gout and laughs and bellows as Falstaff. Jasper Britton’s Henry is the smaller of the four parts, but at the beginning his voice echoes around the hall and we feel his angst, pride at his kingship, horror at his passage to it. As he speaks, Richard II looks down from the balcony with David Tennant’s costume from the previous production, long red wig and crown, linking us to the previous play. (And no, to the lad who asked his dad in the queue for the loo, I don’t think they got David Tennant back for that brief silent cameo!)
The Hotspur /Lady Percy scene was a revelation, in direction and business. My companion had played Lady Percy as a sixth former and had no idea the role was as potentially powerful as it was today.
Falstaff’s sorry band of recruits plod and limp across the misty back stage area as he explains to Prince Hal that they’re only destined for the pit of dead bodies, so anyone will suffice. In both plays, Shakespeare is making his point about the ordinary soldier.
The Battle of Shrewsbury was terrific. Elizabethan audiences treasured the battles, and this, to loud stirring live music, wreathed in smoke, was as good as a stage battle can be. They used the four entrances to keep it moving at speed in diagonals. The three archers interspersed looked good. Sean Chapman as the Earl of Douglas was a fearsome Scot with his long red hair and spiked ‘Morning Star’ battle hammer and curved knife, up to slaughter anyone. Hotspur’s fight with Hal was fantastically energetic and powerful, Hotspur fighting two-handed, Hal bereft of sword taking it all on his shield, then both of them fighting double-handed. After a feeble fencing match at The Globe earlier in the week, this so far outclassed The Globe in fight direction and execution. The main regret is we have no Hotspur for Part 2.
The ending with Falstaff playing dead, then pretending he’d defeated Hotspur is perhaps Shakespeare’s best multiple death scene. There were no laughs in the wrong places, raucous laughter in the right places. The writing gets over the normal problems of ‘Alas! I am slain!’ and the acting was a masterclass from Scher, Hassell, Britton and White.
There are clearly four star parts, but the ensemble worked together with not a single weak point.
Set design, seamlessly moving from court to Eastcheap tavern, to fields, to battle and the lighting are the usual high RSC standard.
Henry IV Part 2
Royal Shakespeare Company
Saturday 26th April 2014, Evening
Directed by Greg Doran
Part 2 is a change of pace. It’s an odd play. Not for us is it in the same league as Part One. The drama of battle has gone. Prince Hal doesn’t appear for half an hour. Henry IV doesn’t appear for an hour. I nearly said they were off-screen, because the two stories, the court and nobles, and Falstaff’s adventures are intercut in a filmic way. They rarely touch, just alternate. Those who like Henry IV Part Two talk about the tissue of rumours and falsehood and its subtlety. I think it would be better seen separately to Part One. There is no flow between them.
Justice Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies) & Falstaff (Anthony Scher)
The popularity of Falstaff demanded a sequel, and only a tenuous Henry/Northumberland story was retained. Henry IV appears right at the end of each half, that’s all. Justice Shallow is another brilliant performance by Oliver Ford Davies. The trembling leg when his old (and perhaps imagination enhanced) exploits came to mind was one of the best bits of physical comedy in the play. Silence is an engaging sidekick. Yes, the scene with the new bunch of decrepit recruits, Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble and Bullcraft was hilarious, and delightfully non-PC as they shambled about drooling. The character of Mistress Quickly, pronounced as it was in 1600 as “Quick-Lay”, at least by Paola Dionisotti, is greatly developed … again building on popularity of Part One, and Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) is added for more physical comedy. Pistol joins Bardolph and Falstaff and is an even larger character, played by Anthony Byrne. All these additions enlarge the comedy so much that you think, ‘Is this actually a history play as usually defined?’ Or is it the comedy spin-off from a history play? One effect of seeing both on the same day with such a huge and fabulous Falstaff, is that by the end of part two, Falstaff was too rich a feast. We’d both had enough of the character, and the sequel brought to mind sitcom spinoffs, and Henry IV Part 2 is “Falstaff- The Christmas Special.” John Cleese in Fawlty Towers had too much sense to stretch the 30-40 minute sitcom to 90 or 120 minutes. You can have too much of even the greatest comic creation, and we had Falstaff fatigue by the end … definitely the result of watching both together.
Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) & Falstaff (Anthony Scher)
The two themes might reflect on each other, but it doesn’t glue together, perhaps because the intercut narrative between the comedy and history is rather too modern for the type of play. The bard’s fault for being ahead of his time. After the drama and noise and battle of Part One, it falls flat. The four rebels are just guys in dusty black, devoid of Hotspur so devoid of character … that’s the text, not the uniformly fine acting. Even then, there was a missed opportunity, when Prince John persuades the rebels to surrender, then sends them to be executed. They handed over their swords and trooped off meekly. That could have been a big action scene dragging them away. It prefaces a very similar scene in Henry V. We were listening to Wolf Hall audio CD on the way to Stratford. And promises made to heretics may be broken. And as the king was the representative of God on Earth, promises made to rebels count for nothing.
Prince Hal (Alex Hassell)
We see so little of Jasper Britton, and he’s SO brilliant when we do. The bed scene with the dying Henry IV and Prince Hal was first rate acting and direction. But there was so little of them in the story. The ending with the crowned Henry telling Falstaff ‘I know you not, old man‘ is one of those defining Shakespearean exchanges, and the costumed coronation parade was a feast for the eyes. But we wanted more Britton and Hassell.
It struck us that for actors, doing the same place twice in a day is less arduous than doing two different plays one after the other. Five and a half hours of performing is a lot with no repetition. There’s also less set changing than in Part One … the Boars Head Tavern is one bedroom, not the whole thing with side stairs and platform. The prologue, Rumour, setting up the plays running theme of misinformation, was in modern dress, doing a selfie with his phone. It’s certainly the second recent modern dress prologue in a costumed play. It might be the third.
Overall rating? Part One: 5 stars, Part Two: 3 stars, at most. We were trying to evaluate the excellent seats for part one versus two awful seats, one high, one restricted view, for part two, in influencing our reaction. But in the end, Part One is a beautifully balanced play, Part Two is a sequel, with all that implies, not a continuation.
This started with the last election. Nick Clegg pronounced create as ‘crate’ and world as ‘wold’ in the TV debates, and Cameron and later Miliband have started doing the same. WOLD and CRATE have spread like wildfire. CRATE got on the BBC, killing off CREE-ATE. Alex Hassell, as a young person in a position of power said WOLD throughout the play. Notably Anthony Scher, thankfully, still says WORLD. Good. WOLD really sets my teeth on edge.