It’s been a while since I saw a Shakespeare play; the last one was Richard II at the RSC, with David Tennant. I was somewhat disappointed in that production: Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t always the most interesting, and the cast, to me, seemed overshadowed by Tennant.
Last night, however, another history play blew me away. Henry IV Part 1, the first of two Henry IV plays, has recently started running at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Antony Sher as Falstaff.
The Henry IV plays are odd. They are the only history plays that contain so much comedy, and the most important character in them is not the named character. In fact, King Henry IV is almost a minor character in part 1. He has the fourth longest part in the play, with 341 lines, after Falstaff (616 lines), Henry Percy, or Hotspur (562 lines), and Henry Prince of Wales, or Hal (551 lines).
Falstaff is clearly at the center of this play, not only in the tavern in Eastcheap, where he is in his element, but also on the battlefield, where he shows his true colors. And he’s the star element in this play: he’s the actor who gets chosen as a draw, and he gets on the poster. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Harold Bloom focuses almost entirely on Falstaff. “The two parts of Henry IV do not belong to Hal, but to Falstaff, and even Hotspur, in the first part, is dimmed by Falstaff’s splendor.”
The RSC’s current production, directed by Gregory Doran, shines a light on Falstaff, and highlights the humor of the play, but does not neglect the rivalry between Prince Hal and Hotspur. This rivalry, both between the two and in the mind of Henry IV, is set out in a statement that the king says to the Earl of Westmoreland in the first scene:
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!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
Prince Hal is under the influence of Falstaff, and the first time Hal appears onstage – waking up with two young women – Falstaff comes out from under the covers at the foot of the bed. They drink and carouse together, much to the chagrin of the king.
The tie between them is strong, and clear, though one never learns how they met, and why they became so close. Falstaff can be seen as a surrogate father to Prince Harry, and his warmth and affection are apparent. Falstaff is a bumbling, old, fat drunk, but he’s the drunk you want to have by your side. His loyalty is obvious, and he’s a riot to be with. Sher gives Falstaff a voice and character that shines brilliantly from the stage. The set pieces with Falstaff brought the house down: the long scene where he recounts the bungled robbery of some pilgrims, then pretends to be the king, is a delight. The comic timing of the cast is wonderful, and I, like most of the audience, was in stitches.
Contrasted to Falstaff, Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is stately and upright, yet perfectly conveys the insouciance of youth; at least until later in the play, where he has to take up arms against Harry Percy. He then shows that he has what it takes to become king.
Trevor White, as Harry Percy, or Hotspur, is a seething cauldron of anger and hatred. White walks a fine line; he’s just shy of overdoing his portrayal of this character. But his attitude felt realistic, even his gesticulations of pleasure at being able to fight King Henry’s men. He is loud and boisterous, but his overzealousness works well.
While the scenes with Falstaff are full of laughs, the rest of the play does not lack energy. There are some slow scenes – particularly the first scene with King Henry and Westmoreland, and some of the later scenes that discuss the disputes between the king and Mortimer, Hotspur’s uncle. But the action picks up in the climax, which occurs at Shrewsbury, where a vast battle will decide the fate of the kingdom.
The battle scene is breathtaking: the actors are running back and forth, swinging swords and clashing shields. Sitting right next to the stage, I had to lean back, to keep my distance, as all that metal was flying so close to me. Amidst all this, of course, is Falstaff, who first plays dead, then pretends that it was he who killed Hotspur, not Prince Hal. There is one moment in this scene where Antony Sher shows Falstaff in a nutshell: the rotund man, lying on the ground, has great difficulty getting up, rocking back and forth like a turtle on its shell, much to the delight of the audience.
The staging was inventive, with quick changes from an empty stage to the tavern in Eastcheap, and with a powerful use of lights and music. The pacing of the play was rapid and full of movement, with the exception of a couple of scenes where characters were static.
This production of Henry IV Part 1 is riveting, hilarious, spectacular and a true delight. It’s one of the best I’ve seen at the RSC, and the rousing applause after the performance reflected three wonderful hours of theater. I want to see it again.
Don’t miss this production. It’s playing in Stratford-upon-Avon through September, then in London, and a number of other cities in the UK. It’s also going to be broadcast in cinemas on May 14.
Photos: RSC, Kwame Lestrade.