Henry IV, parts I and II, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The acclaimed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has custom-built premises on the windy city's Navy Pier, its design drawing direct inspiration from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford. So, it's nicely fitting that, as part of the Complete Works Festival, the Chicagoans have come to the venue that influenced their own.

The visiting productions in this season have ranged from a German Othello to a Japanese Titus Andronicus. But an American staging of the two parts of Henry IV might seem, at first blush, a trickier proposition. You can see how the narrow-minded might object that these plays are a panorama of quintessentially English (or perhaps British) life. But the political plight (a country torn in no-win civil strife between the forces of a usurping ruler and increasingly fragmented rebels) is as universal as the psychological drama about the human cost of shouldering power and of choosing between conflicting father-figures. Henry IV belongs to the world.

A shame, then, that Barbara Gaines' productions of the plays, while swift-paced, rhetorically robust and admirably committed, feel oddly constrained by an unnecessary deference to Englishness. It's not just that they look embarrassingly dated, with terrible wigs, olde-worlde costumes and the kind of brutalist black-leather uniforms that were all the rage at the RSC in the 1970s. More hampering are the weird, partly anglicised accents affected by several of the leading actors.

As Sir John Falstaff, Greg Vinkler, with his waggishly dancing eyebrows and mischievous humour, is a knight more in the Franz Hals mode than in the darker Rembrandt vein. There's not much sense of a hinterland. Still, it's a genuinely engaging performance, marred for me, however, by the fact that Vinkler has overlaid his native tones with an inappropriate veneer of English gentility. Likewise, given that Jeffrey Carlson plays the unreformed Prince Hal with the body language and irritating sniggers of a contemporary slacker, why has he mangled the vowel sounds that come naturally to him? The irony is that the American accent is much closer to how Shakespeare would have sounded than English RP. Let it out, guys.

The production is accomplished and has some fine sequences. But until the stark conclusive parallel, it comes across more as a skilled imitation than something that has found its own voice.

To Saturday. 08706 091 110; www.rsc.org.uk

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