At the heart of this year's Peter Hall season in Bath sits a work that the veteran director staged at the RSC almost 50 years ago. And this production, taking place on a versatile set by Simon Higlett, has all of his hallmarks.
It is brilliantly spoken – the language takes centre-stage and every pun, witticism and tongue-twisting insult is given its moment, no matter how much semaphore is required to translate the meaning today.
But if the language is consistently and metrically flawless the dramatic drive of the production is less so. There are inspired moments but rudderless half hours and Part I is by some way the stronger.
Desmond Barrit as Falstaff is a drunken dandy, tripping with a daintiness that belies his girth. He is at his best when declaiming to the audience but he lacks that essential Falstaffian spark. Barrit's Falstaff is little more than a winded clown – a Bottom – and it is hard to believe Hal would love this gormless drunkard.
Tom Mison, as Prince Hal, seems to recognise this and never looks fully at home in the fat knight's company. The scene in which he plays his father and pours insults on Falstaff is brilliantly executed by both actors. But it feels like an eruption of barely contained vitriol and rather suggests buried enmity than long friendship.
If Mison's Hal is two-faced and flighty, his foil – Harry "Hotspur" Percy – is a fire ball of anger. Ben Mansfield in the role stabs his lines out like daggers and, too great a talent to waste, he returns in Part II in the role of roaring drunk, Pistol. There is good work too from Edward Harrison as Hal's Puckish companion, Poins, and both David Yelland as King Henry and Robert East, as the rebellious Northumberland, make powerful statesmen.
The polished pearl of this double-headed production, though, is the battle scene at Shrewsbury at the end of Part I, when the two Harrys meet (in a fight smoothly choreographed by Kate Waters). Much of what comes before and afterwards feels like academic recitation. But in this scene, Hall allows drama to take precedence.
Part II is altogether flatter. We are presented with a series of vaudevillian set-pieces. The tavern scenes have very little humour and the speechifying becomes more staid. It is not until this play's closing moments, as Henry IV lies dying, that things liven up.
This is a curate's egg of a production: Hall is too in thrall to Shakespeare's text to release the joie de vivre so crucial to the comic scenes or to allow action equal billing with words. A solid, scholarly rendering.
**** / ***
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