Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, National Theatre, Olivier, London

The prince's progress
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The Independent Culture

It's a remarkable fact that Nick Hytner's excellent production of Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays is the first time that this great diptych has been mounted at the National Theatre. The RSC seems to have measured out its life in versions of the pieces. Trevor Nunn famously opened the company's residency at the Barbican Theatre with a fine account of them back in the 1980s. Adrian Noble chose to launch his career as artistic director of the RSC with a version famous for a deeply melancholic Falstaff from Robert Stephens.

It's a remarkable fact that Nick Hytner's excellent production of Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays is the first time that this great diptych has been mounted at the National Theatre. The RSC seems to have measured out its life in versions of the pieces. Trevor Nunn famously opened the company's residency at the Barbican Theatre with a fine account of them back in the 1980s. Adrian Noble chose to launch his career as artistic director of the RSC with a version famous for a deeply melancholic Falstaff from Robert Stephens.

One of the reasons that it's a pleasure to welcome Hytner's NT staging is that the Henry IV plays are a great national epic, and you could say that the Olivier, which a decade ago housed the David Hare Trilogy (the national epic de nos jours) is their rightful home. And one of the reasons for praising this production, which features in the Travelex £10 season, is that it manages to suggest the mighty sweep of the plays - their oscillation from uptight court to frowsty lowlife, from the frenetically urban to the peacefully pastoral, from the battlefield to the boozer - with depth and definition, even though (in the admirable interests of getting a wide spread of the nation in to see the piece) the budget for design is evidently not opulent.

The drama is played out on a roughly arrow-shaped wooden stage. At the start, David Bradley's haunted, cadaverous King and his court process down the incline, while at each side of the acting-area, widows weep over the corpses of the slain. It's an arresting premonition of the conclusion of the first half, when, in the aftermath of the bloody Battle of Shrewsbury, this stage picture is reconvened. Hytner's is an interpretation that never lets you forget that, far from being a unifying force for good, the usurper, Henry, managed to divide and alienate even his original supporters, with grim results.

The production achieves clarity of theme (with their competing father-figures and competing monarchs, these are highly schematic plays) and richness and subtlety of texture (for these are works of brilliantly shifting atmospheres that at times seem to anticipate everything from Restoration comedy to Chekhov).

Michael Gambon wonderfully incorporates the contradictions of Falstaff. He looks like the kind of wily, drunken bohemian tramp that Just William would ill-advisedly let into the Brown household, where he would later be found comatose in the wine cellar. In the moveable feast of his accent, you hear the tones of a parvenu whose poshness is pretty precarious and inclined to slip into saloon-bar bravado. This is not a sentimentalised fat knight. He's utterly out for himself, and the last thing we're treated to in Part 1 is the sight of him shamelessly robbing two venerable corpses.

But there is also human pathos. Matthew Macfadyen's witty, shrewd Prince of Wales is far more at ease than is usually the case with his game-plan of slumming it in order to win eventual credit for reform. That makes him emotionally less accessible to this Falstaff, who seems to spend the plays vainly reaching out to him for a gesture of affection that never quite comes. And, rising above all the callow mockery of the Prince and Poins, his sad, tender scene with Doll Tearsheet tears at the heart, as his manipulative protestations of love seem, under the shadow of mortality, to melt elegiacally into the real thing.

The cast are strong. The scenes in Gloucestershire are delectably comic, thanks to the great John Wood, whose Justice Shallow is a transcendent study in florid, nervously energetic self-delusion about a wild youth that he did not experience. He is delightfully partnered by Adrian Scarborough, who, as Silence, is like a little slip of death inadequately warmed up - until he gets a few glasses inside him, when he cannot be restrained from providing quavering, unwanted cabaret. Highly recommended.

To 31 August (020-7928 2252)

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