It’s the early 15th century and King Henry IV is King of England. His son, Prince Harry (Hal) is bothered by his lot and their strained relationship forms one part of the story. The second plot is a disquieting rebellion plotted by noblemen in the North because of King Henry’s refusal to acknowledge his debt to them. Ah, that North-South divide. It goes back ages, doesn’t it?
Part II picks up the story as England is in the middle of a civil war. Rebels want to overthrow the King who has now become sick. Prince Hal, having spent most of his formative years drinking, womanising and generally not giving a hoot about his peerage is friends with his mentor, Falstaff. Falstaff is an old, fat drunkard. He was there in Part I but his position was one of ambiguity. Now he’s an army captain, drinking (again and a lot) and recruiting young men to serve. Prince Hal vows to change his ways and spends less time with old chum, Falstaff.
There’s lots of subterfuge, as is the wont of a Shakespearian story, and with the death of his father, Hal is formally crowned King Henry V. Falstaff and his companions come to London but are rejected by the newly-crowned king.
I’ve debated reviewing Henry IV Parts I & II in separate reviews (I saw them at The Lowry) as the productions stand alone. I’ve thought about it for two reasons. One, because I took different theatre-buddies to each performance; the first, an actor friend, felt like they’d seen a complete story and the latter, a fellow writer who was informed through the ‘back-story’ of what had gone before. The second reason is because as someone who has never seen either part, I would need to expound on both. But, by the time Part Two was at interval, I was convinced that it was meant to be seen as a whole. The set was the same, as were most of the characters and as director Gregory Doran had said in an interview with Northern Soul, “there’s an arc that goes over the two plays”. So, mind made up, the two belong in one review.
The two histories which form the tetralogy (which also includes Richard III and Henry V) mix history and comedy, shifting from scenes with kings and their battles to raunchy and bawdy ale houses. These dramedies are underpinned with the undetermined Falstaff who is plonked into the thick of greatness to shine irreverence, making us all think.
Sir Antony Sher takes the role of the rogue Falstaff and delivers the goods. His selfish, boozy, mischievous interpretation may divide some revellers and his disingenuous character is uncomfortable viewing. But, as an anti-heroes go, he makes for an interesting character.
Michael Morpurgo (no stranger to making history relevant – see War Horse) said once in an interview that the most interesting characters “have frailty…and we’re all tempted”. And Falstaff is us – tempted by everything given half the chance.
The rest of the cast are made up of tremendous performers. Jasper Britton breaths intrigue into his King Henry. Oliver Ford Davies is superb as Justice Shallow in Part II and Alex Hassell is just the right side of likeable as the privileged toff, Prince Hal – his cocksure and wayward boyish impudence is satisfying and truthful.
The whole ensemble draws believable interpretations and the production bristles with beauty and brittleness in equal measure. The themes of death and power have never been so breathtaking.
The RSC’s shows look great on a big stage and the whole production is very sexy. It’s a slick operation but there’s neither gristle nor unnecessary accoutrements. It’s about the acting and the words. Doran and the rest of his company have found the truth within the text. They have found ‘us’ – that human collectiveness of rhetoric, silliness, brilliance and horridness and, boy, it’s something special to have all that confirmed in two very good productions.
What: Henry IV Parts I & II by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Where: The Lowry, Salford and touring
When: touring until January 24, 2015
More info: www.thelowry.com/event/henry-iv-part-1, http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/henry-iv/