Henry IV Parts I and II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon - review

A sublime blend of fathomless gloom and mad merriment

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The Independent Culture

Gregory Doran launched his new cycle of Shakespeare's history plays last year with the hugely successful Richard II starring David Tennant.  He now follows that up with this spacious, vivid (if somewhat uneven) account of Henry IV, Parts I and II. 

Performed on the mighty thrust stage of the RSC's main house in Stratford, the productions have an admirably assured grasp of the plays' panoramic sweep, moving with fluency and a fine feel for thematic counterpoint between care-racked court and lax, frowsty Eastcheap, boozer and battlefield, urban and pastoral.

The most surprising feature of Part I is the treatment of Hotspur.  Though the character is held up as a rebuke to Hal who is playing “truant” from “honour” in the tavern, Trevor White's egregious performance shows you a blonde hothead who is impatient to the point of derangement, forever leaping into the air with anger or aggressive glee and near-autistic in his inability to heed other people.  

For a supposed embodiment of old-style warrior chivalry, he comes across very like a violent overgrown child. This re-thinking of the rivalry between Prince and rebel is fresh – you feel that if they had indeed been swapped at birth, as Jasper Britton's emotionally turbulent Henry claims to wish, the King would just have been landed with another kind of liability. 

But it's so over-the-top that I'm afraid I found Hotspur's death – after the thrillingly tense climactic sword-fight – to be a relief rather than a wrench.

Youthful high spirits show up, by contrast, more appealingly in Alex Hassell's excellent Hal who is first seen waking up in the company of two women, with Antony Sher's Falstaff popping out preposterously from under the covers at the foot of the bed. 

There's been a recent trend to lay too heavy a stress on the Prince as strategist, slumming it as part of a long-range plan to win acclaim when he reforms.  But there's no cynicism in Hassell's portrayal of Hal whose playful, exasperated affection for the fat knight are warmly evident, if subject to sudden flashes of depression and dismay. 

Ralph Richardson once said that: “Falstaff proceeds at his own chosen pace, like a gorgeous ceremonial Indian elephant”. I was reminded of this remark by Sher's commandingly comic performance as the raffish, ruminative old reprobate (who here has bad a case of the Dts). 

Part of the joke in this production is that Sher's pukka-accented Falstaff delivers his witty speeches with an imperturbably unhurried, self-relishing deliberateness, as though other folk would naturally have all the time in the world to listen. 

The shameless resource with which the knight wriggles out of every scrape is drolly heightened by this refusal to change gear.  The performance is, as a result, perhaps too uniform and insufficiently darkened in Part II by the effects of sickness and age but it has depth of humour and great audience rapport.   

Sher is surrounded by a crack company – amongst whom I particularly enjoyed Paola Dionisotti's Dot Cotton-like take on Mistress Quickly and the Shallow and Silence combo of Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper who sublimely blend fathomless gloom and mad merriment.  Strongly recommended.

To September 6; 0844 800 1110 – then touring.  Both productions will be broadcast live – Pt I on May 14 and Pt on June 18.

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