An heir to the throne with a ruined reputation, in permanent company of an overweight alcoholic and other dubious characters, all that on the background of rebelling earls and looming civil war – that in itself would be enough to endanger the throne’s stability. The situation is, however, aggravated by increasing self-doubt regarding the question whether all that might not be God’s punishment for the usurpation of Richard II’s crown by Henry IV and his subsequent murder – leading to nervous and unwise decisions.
Henry IV is the starting and turning point of these Shakespeare dramas, but in fact, he is not the main character. The plays are, on the one hand, about the difficulty to accept the burden of responsibility, on the other hand about the life of audiences’ all-time favourite Falstaff, the personification of hedonism, at the same time mercilessly living at the expense of others.
Anthony Sher is just magnificent in his role as Falstaff. He is padding around, moaning, celebrating and philosophising and he keeps a firm and joyful hold on the audience. Fabulous in his clowny scenes and just the right amount of nastiness at times when his ruthlessness shines through. Alex Hassel is Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. Throughout, from being a wayward princeling up to the breath-taking moment of his coronation, Alex makes his character palpable and believable.
In the tavern, it is Paola Dionisotti as crafty Mistress Quickly, who rules supreme; in part II she is supported by Nia Gwynne as a touching Doll Tearsheet.
Falstaff’s and Prince Hal’s tavern mates, Ned Poins (Sam Marks) and Bardolph (Joshua Richards) keep the comedy atmosphere dense. Pistol (Antony Byrne) and Beadle (Simon Yadoo) complete the picture in the second part.
The rebellious faction is initially led by Hotspur, real name Harry Percy, son and heir to the Earl of Northumberland. Trevor White plays this young rebel with his tumultuous nickname as just that, hot-tempered, hyperactive and barely controllable. An outstanding decision, at last the dynamics between those two exponential opposites, Hal and Hotspur, becomes comprehensible. Their sword fight represents a tearing pace highlight towards the end of part I, in an accomplishment second to none.
Part II, with the second rebellion, the King’s illness and Falstaff’s mission to recruit soldiers, takes the scene to Gloucestershire, where Justice Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies) and Justice Silence (Jim Hooper) add new and in their subtleness absolutely ingenious comical accents.
Henry IV – Jasper Britton, who in a superbly simple but impressive manner gives shape to this often neglected title character – the unsettled king dies, not without having first made peace with his son Hal.
Falstaff had already imagined himself as confidant to the new king, but now he learns that Hal came to understand that he could not trust this tavern friendship.
Director Gregory Doran, with these two productions from the histories cycle, has added a new double crown to this psychologically rich Shakespeare material.
Apart from the above mentioned actors and many superb others, the two boys Luca Saraceni-Gunner and Jonathan Williams deserve a special mention as Falstaff’s cheeky page.
In her support role as Lady Mortimer, Nia Gwynne creates a particularly unforgettable moment in part I, when she sings for her husband in Welsh. A goosebumps moment!
Henry IV Part I and Part II will be on stage in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 6th September 2014, thereafter in 7 further theatres around the country, amongst which the Barbican Theatre London from 29th November to 24th January.
On 14th May Part I and on 18th June 2014 Part II will be screened live in cinemas worldwide.
Photos by Kwame Lestrade
Video: Greg Doran on Henry IV