Falstaff: you're history

Henry IV, Part One | Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
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The Independent Culture

After a clinical modern-dress Richard II in the intimacy of the Other Place, the RSC's stylistically eclectic history cycle now moves to the Swan Theatre for Michael Attenborough's deeply satisfying post-medieval version of the first part of Henry IV. The continuities of casting must make the project a mildly bemusing experience for the actors. One day your character is an SAS hard nut; the next he is in chain mail.

Steven Pimlott's forensic Richard II ends, in a pointedly witty touch, with the line that opens Henry IV: "So shaken as we are, so wan with care," and indeed one of the virtues of David Troughton's portrayal of the usurper Bolingbroke in the earlier tragedy is the sense he imparts that to seize the crown by force is to step almost instantly into a waking nightmare. Now the eponymous monarch, he is first seen here in guilt-racked prayer, wearing a penitential gown and hefty wooden cross. His eyes stare hauntedly; he spits out the verse with an angry vehemence. But he never lets you forget that this careworn king is the same brutal operator who manoeuvred his way to the top. In his dealings with the rebellious nobles, there's a terrific trapped violence in Troughton's Henry, a feeling he can barely restrain himself from savagery.

The production is played on a dark, gritty set by Es Devlin that glows with under-floor fire in the battles, as though the whole kingdom were burning. With some fluent overlapping of scenes, Attenborough deftly counterpoints the insecure, conscience-stricken court with the truant indulgences of the world of Eastcheap. It's a telling stroke that in one of these clever spatial dissolves, William Houston's impressive Hal seems to emerge after a night's debauch from under the throne his father has just vacated. Not that Houston ever seems more than tokenly at risk from the alternative values of that environment. There's a steely, thin-lipped mirthlessness in his wide, would-be sociable smile; his body has a wiry muscularity that puts you more in mind of punishing pec-decks than of publand peccadilloes. In the superb set piece in which Hal imitates his father carpeting Falstaff, he carries off the impersonation of righteousness with an ease that eventually even he finds unnerving.

Desmond Barrit's silver-maned Falstaff is beautifully mellow and relaxed and tinged with camp. There's an attractively stage-struck quality about some of his boastful economies with the truth that makes you feel that this is how Bottom would have essayed the role, had the script been available in Athens. But he also shows you the knight's unbombastic depths: I have never heard the famous speech questioning the value of "honour" delivered with such a compelling, wry casualness. This is a Falstaff who, when he's supposed to return a signal at Gadshill, turns out, hilariously, to be one of nature's non-whistlers. Will the traditional implications of this inability be explored in Part Two? We wait impatiently for the answer. In repertory, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon Avon, 01789 403403