Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Royal Shakespeare Company, The Lowry, Manchester, 21st-22nd October 2014
You find us in The Lowry on consecutive nights watching the RSC’s production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 (the RSC currently in the midst of a six year journey through all 36 of Shakespeare’s play, their latest outing directly following last year’s Richard II), the long middle stretch of a tetralogy that culminates with Henry V. With a set composed of boards and weathered window blinds, and exquisite use of both light and sound (which narrows the field of attention to a pin prick of lantern light at times or the solemn intoning of a deep baritone and then reminds of Kurosawa’s Ran at others), the muted backdrop allows us to be transplanted from sepulchre to bawdy house, from battle field to deathbed without once being alienated from the action – which opens with Henry IV himself celebrating his defeat of Richard II to claim, rashly as it turns out, ‘No more the thirsty entrance of this soil / Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood; / Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields’. Such celebratory talk of the battle’s winners and losers eventually settles on Hotspur, Lord Northumberland’s son, who has fought well and brought honour to his father’s name, in direct contrast with the king’s own son, upon whom ‘riot and dishonour stain the brow’:
‘O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!’
It is from this fork that the two main paths of the play diverge – yes, there are political manoeuvrings a-plenty as Hotspur and his father and their cohorts connive to revenge themselves on Henry IV for perceived slights and injustices, but there is also the story of Hal, the king’s son, the man who will in time be Henry V, a young man given to dissolution, mischief and mayhem, who spends his time in taverns and bawdy houses, carousing as if he had not a care in the world. We first meet him emerging from beneath a bed cover, as not one but two young fillies skip daintily away – and then a second head emerges, that of Falstaff, perhaps the greatest comic role in all of Shakespeare, and the two engage in the kind of badinage that would no doubt set Hal’s father to tugging his hair out. It isn’t long, though, before Hal is left alone to address the audience: ‘herein will I imitate the sun, / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world,’ he tells us; ‘So, when this loose behavior I throw off / And pay the debt I never promised, / By how much better than my word I am, / …And like bright metal on a sullen ground, / My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.’ Hal, then, is playing the base low fellow until his time is right. (There are various schools of thought, different interpretations of what this means, whether the two plays form a rite of passage for Hal, whether Hal is a master of realpolitik – I think this early speech indicates the latter rather than the former.)
Because it is a history play, intellectually you presume that the history will form the core of the action but Falstaff pounds at the heart of the plays, Anthony Sher, one of the country’s most famous Shakespearian actors, a man famous for having performed definitive versions of Macbeth, Iago, Malvolio, Shylock and Richard III, having the time of his life as the riotous, overweight clown who, we know, will end with his heart broken, the buffoonery undercut by the knowledge we have that Hal, who he loves in his way, will one day cut him off, figuratively speaking, at the knees. So in Part 1, we see as Falstaff and his cronies attempt a robbery and are beaten away by Hal and his buddy, Hoims, the two of them watching with undisguised glee as the horde of attackers grow in size; we see Falstaff conscripted into war, his cowardice and his braggadocio providing a merry distraction from the malignant intent of the rebels themselves.
Part 1 is a neater play, in some respects, a tight narrative which wouldn’t be out of place within something like Game of Thrones holding all manner of drinking and singing and carrying on within its iron fist. Part 2 is a slightly different proposition – one set of rebels done away with, another set rising, Henry IV ill, his son gradually moving from dissolution to the position that is required of him and Falstaff engaged in a romance with the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Again, there are political machinations, again there is backstabbing and Machiavellian plotting, again there is comedy – one could even go as far to say that the comedy is elevated in the second play with the admission of Pistol to the rolls, a man who emerges from a cloud of explosive with hair pointed violently at the sky – and yet, because we know, don’t we?, that this is the play that culminates with Falstaff denied (‘I know you not old man’, a line that seems to echo from the stage and out into the night across Salford, such power does it have), the imminent tragedy serving to undercut some (although by no means all) of the humour. If Falstaff could be said to dominate Part 1, he stands astride Part 2 like a colossus, as Hal himself eases into the background, drawing away from the action of the play and the audience to become something else entirely, some figure lost to us through history – and we, we ordinary folk, are left with Falstaff, likewise banished into the mists at the end of the production.
With plays of this cumulative size (six hours over two nights, my wife groaned on the way to the theatre), it can be difficult to separate out everything that goes to making it the experience it is. One thing you can be assured by is the presence of the RSC – a mark of quality if ever there was one. Within the plays themselves, there are opportunities for a great many to shine (and also opportunities to allow others to shine – this is exemplified by Trevor White who thrills as the hot-headed Hotspur in Part 1 and draws somewhat into the background in Part 2 as Lord Mowbray): Anthony Sher we’ve already mentioned, but Alex Hassell also delivers a tremendous Hal. Joshua Richards was an audience favourite, his plainspeaking way with Bardulph’s lines providing a great many of the big laughs on the first night. Jasper Britton, returning from Richard II as Bollingbroke/Henry IV, is frail and exasperated in even measure (and kudos to the person who framed the scene in which Henry sits at stage edge, recalling Richard II’s most famous speech about telling stories of sad dead kings). There are standouts throughout the two nights – Nia Gwynne’s Doll Tearsheet, Oliver Ford Davies’ Justice Shallow, Paola Dionisotti’s Mistress Quickly, Simon Yaddo’s Mouldy (alongside a whole host of accompanying characters), and, of course, Falstaff’s page, played by Luca Saracen-Gunner.
Just about the only criticism you can level at a production that has obviously involved such a great deal of exhaustive thought and work from all involved is that it didn’t quite last long enough. As Falstaff is bustled off the stage at the climax, you long for just one more rant – and wonder if the RSC will follow in Branagh and Olivier’s footsteps and include him, wordlessly, one more time when they get round to doing Henry V.