Henry IV, Parts 1 &amp; 2, NT Olivier, London <br/> The Importance of Being Earnest, Old Vic, Bristol <br/> If Destroyed True, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Debauched, decrepit, delicious
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Director Nicholas Hytner's double whammy of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 - opening the day before the election - began with the cry of women. New war widows howl over soldiers' corpses in a landscape that - evoking Paul Nash's paintings - is littered with the stubs of bare, ruined trees. England is a tattered and wintry realm in the wake of its latest civil strife, and David Bradley's care-ridden King Henry is skeletally gaunt with a shaky voice. Though he soon gets snappier, he barely has time to announce his new campaign in the Holy Land before another domestic rebellion breaks out, led by the Earl of Northumberland and his irate offspring, Hotspur (David Harewood). Simultaneously, of course, Henry's own son, Matthew Macfadyen's Prince Hal, is damaging the royal family's image by boozing with Michael Gambon's terrifically dishevelled Falstaff.

Director Nicholas Hytner's double whammy of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 - opening the day before the election - began with the cry of women. New war widows howl over soldiers' corpses in a landscape that - evoking Paul Nash's paintings - is littered with the stubs of bare, ruined trees. England is a tattered and wintry realm in the wake of its latest civil strife, and David Bradley's care-ridden King Henry is skeletally gaunt with a shaky voice. Though he soon gets snappier, he barely has time to announce his new campaign in the Holy Land before another domestic rebellion breaks out, led by the Earl of Northumberland and his irate offspring, Hotspur (David Harewood). Simultaneously, of course, Henry's own son, Matthew Macfadyen's Prince Hal, is damaging the royal family's image by boozing with Michael Gambon's terrifically dishevelled Falstaff.

This is not, by the by, a modern-dress production rigorously tying in with Hytner's recent Henry V, in which the ruler's propagandist speeches became newsflashes on the pub TV in Eastcheap. Henry IV is more subtly timeless, in plain period costumes with a few contemporary touches (jeans under jerkins). This diptych is also, poignantly, about the passing of time, fathers and sons, ageing and death. A road of raked planks runs, in fast-receding perspective, through the woods so that Shakespeare's characters look as if they're dramatically emerging from the trouble-strewn past and ought to be contemplating where they are heading.

On the downside, the theme of youth versus age is somewhat undermined because Macfadyen and Harewood look a tad too old to be behaving like teenage-style rebels. However, getting longer in the tooth while their elders cling on may well be exacerbating their behaviour. Harewood is entertainingly laddy, taking the mickey out of Robert Blythe's pontificating Owen Glendower. Though Macfadyen can seem stolid, he also persuasively portrays Hal as a public-school brat going to seed, dimly aware he could turn into another Falstaff as he swigs his wine. His flashes of latent regal dignity never struck me as fully convincing, but he's an intriguing mix of arrogance and insecurity. The way he nods repeatedly during his first soliloquy about reforming also interestingly suggests a lost soul trying to rhetorically persuade himself - as well as us - that he can only get better. Hytner leaves a large moral question mark hanging over his final transformation into Henry V, who instantly declares another war.

The sweep of these twin productions is strongly charted but, at this early stage in the run, some details need honing. Susan Brown's Mistress Quickly is more perfunctory than dimwitted and certain chilling lines are thrown away. The live music, with ominous strings and odd electronic beeps can be intrusive too.

Nevertheless, the whole thing will mature well. Adrian Scarborough is a nastily hardnosed Poins and a sweetly senile, wispy Justice Silence, bursting into tipsy ditties. John Wood's Justice Shallow also has an amusing running gag, getting frisky with Falstaff's pageboy. Meanwhile, Bradley's crescendo of parental rage is brilliantly developed as this frosty patriarch gradually reveals a wellspring of wounded tenderness. MacFadyen's surly silence is also hiding bruised filial love. Their deathbed reconciliation scene is particularly moving.

As for Gambon, though it's not perhaps the performance of a lifetime, he is the most lovable and vulnerable Falstaff I've ever seen. He is enjoying himself immensely with his enormous belly, drunkenly slurring and shambling around in slippers and crimson pantaloons. He is shamelessly conniving and selfish - shoveling everybody's meals onto his plate - yet exquisitely tender in his scene with the young whore, Eve Myles' Tearsheet. At the end, when Macfadyen's Hal finally shakes him off, Gambon seems to tragicomically deflate to the size of an abandoned baby, curling into helpless decrepitude as the new king's procession moves on.

Way back in 1974 at the National - in a notoriously divisive associates' meeting during Peter Hall's reign - Jonathan Miller keenly suggested an all-male staging of Wilde's romantic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. He was clearly way ahead of his time for Harold Pinter fiercely objected and Hall recorded the idea seemed mad and was "firmly squashed". Three decades later you can hardly move for guys-only productions. David Fielding's new staging in Bristol is to be swiftly followed by another, in July, at the Abbey, Dublin. Actually, I'd go so far as to say the most interesting aspect of Wilde revivals is discerning the encoded homosexual subtexts in his dramas about frowned-upon heterosexual affairs.

Fielding's production doesn't leave you with much detective work to do. You'd have to be blind not to spot that James Frost's Algernon is a rampantly camp metrosexual, as he minces and skips about his batchelor pad, decorated with fluorescent pink wallpaper embossed with massive, suggestive cucumbers that would have made William Morris blush. Meanwhile, Christopher Staines' Jack, aka Earnest (which was Victorian slang for "gay"), bounds around sporting turquoise eye-shadow and matching blazer.

Oddly, instead of fully exploring this reading, Staines looks as if he's trying to ignore Frost's goosing and repeated attempts to snuggle up close. And judging by the feeble slapstick which he encourages, Fielding is clearly far more of a designer than a director. Nonetheless, Michael Fitzgerald's Lady Bracknell is more disturbingly monstrous than usual, built like a tank and armoured-plated in a kinky corset. Moreover, the production becomes a delight once Simon Trinder's Gwendolen arrives: a sexually ambivalent, pert little miss/young city gent dressed in a pinstriped crinoline. S/he sits demurely, with a poker-straight back, a mauve bowler hat at a rakish angle, and very naughty twinkling eyes. Trinder is a truly great comic actor, and his Gwendolen is often hilarious, swilling his afternoon tea round his mouth like a boxer as he prepares to verbally spar with his frilly rival, Joseph Chance's Cecily. That alone is worth the price of the ticket.

Lastly, Paines Plough's strong season at the Menier has come to a regrettably bad end with Douglas Maxwell's dire new play, If Destroyed True. Maxwell was previously overpraised for Decky Does a Bronco, then deservedly slated for his pretentious Edinburgh International Festival show, Variety. And now we have to suffer this interminable saga about a kid called Vincent growing up in the officially worst town in Scotland, where a corrupt councillor has a fiendish plan to turn everyone into mafia hitmen or zombies with home computers. Half the characters wouldn't make it into a straight-to-video cartoon. Unintelligent, immature, embarrassing. I was bug-eyed with boredom by the end, after countless wearisome plot twists. My companion, clearly verging on delirium, staggered away at the interval asking if he'd really just heard Vincent say, "I'm wondering what the hell could make this play worse." I believe the word was "place", but it was an understandable mistake.

Indeed, director John Tiffany appeared to rise immediately to the challenge, getting his whole cast to launch into a naff disco-cum-mime routine, vaguely pretending to fire pistols. Paines Plough have certainly shot themselves in the foot with this one.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2': NT Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), in rep to 31 Aug; 'The Importance of Being Earnest': Old Vic, Bristol (0117 987 7877), to 28 May; 'If Destroyed True': Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 (020 7907 7060), to 28 May

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