Arts: Theatre: I know thee and I know thee not, old man

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
KEITH BAXTER played Hal in both the original stage version and the 1965 movie of Chimes at Midnight. In Patrick Garland's revival at Chichester, he impressively graduates from the role of the wanton, calculating Prince to that of Hal's careworn, sickly father, Henry IV. That route of promotion is itself perhaps eloquent about the themes of the piece.

Orson Welles's film adaptation of two of Shakespeare's Henry plays compresses them so as to throw even greater emphasis on the contention between Hal's two father figures - his blood father, the cold, controlling and oppressive King, and his surrogate father, the permissive, dissolute, witty Falstaff - for the love and soul of the young heir.

An actor who plays Hal in his youth is a good deal more likely to age into a Henry IV than into the fat knight, a process parallel to that in the play, where Falstaff is always fated to be just an essential enriching phase that Hal needs to pass through before accepting the humanly narrowing destiny of Kingship.

At Chichester, Falstaff is played by Orson Welles's biographer, Simon Callow, himself an outsize personality and fertile wit. The performance he gives here, though, is stronger on the fruity, booming bombast and the airy, charmingly self-convinced delivery of barefaced whoppers than it is on suggesting any deeper hinterland to the character.

As the title indicates, there's an elegiac thrust to the play which ends with the scene from Henry IV where the fat knight's death, babbling of green fields, is touchingly reported, just as Pistol, Nym and Bardolph are about to embark for the war in France. But even a piece specifically re-shaped as a celebration of Falstaff could afford to take a more candid look at his darker side than we get here.

The ugliness in his misdeeds is not allowed to complicate our appreciation of their comic outrageousness. We could be watching a scapegrace who had roughly the same moral complexity and capacity for reflection on his actions as Mr Toad.

And the nature of Falstaff's emotional bond with Hal is under-explored. When Robert Stephens played the character at Stratford as a more brooding, Rembrandtesque figure than usual, you kept seeing that Hal was the only thing that stood between Falstaff and a lonely, childless old age. This came out even in bantering moments.

Delivering these lines from Falstaff's famous eulogy on the virtues of drink, "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack," Stephens voice broke on the first phrase, bringing firmly home the bleak fact that the soon-to-turn Prince Hal is the nearest person to a son he'll ever get.

Garland's fluently staged, but not very searching, production needs more subtleties of that order, particularly given the increased stress on this subject in Chimes.

Tam Williams, who boasts the looks and presence of someone who could make a packet fronting a Boyzone-type band, is a vivid, youthfully insecure Hal. For his headstrong rival, Hotspur, Tristan Gemmill has the right impatient, scornful charisma that makes such a meal of the character's speech impediment, it comes to seem like his determining feature.

There are attractive cameos in the play (especially from Sarah Badel as Mistress Quickly), but the production is too generalised.

Afterwards I overheard a Chichester matron greeting her friends. "Well," she said, groping for the right word. "That was rather, er, fun." And not much else, alas.

Paul Taylor