Player Kings, review: Watching Ian McKellen in this is like seeing your granddad at a rave

The veteran actor stars in a long uneven new production fusing both parts of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ at London’s Noël Coward Theatre

Tim Bano
Friday 12 April 2024 12:43 BST
Ian McKellen takes the role of Falstaff, one he’s often refused in the past
Ian McKellen takes the role of Falstaff, one he’s often refused in the past (Manuel Harlan)

Watching Ian McKellen in a Robert Icke production is a bit like seeing your granddad at a rave. In an unlikely pairing, the great veteran actor of the British stage joins with one of its more recent superstars to take Henry IV part one AND two – yes, it’s almost four hours long – and try to make it cool.

It’s definitely an Icke staging. The man behind brilliant contemporary updates of classics like Oresteia, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Oedipus – opening in the West End later this year – brings his usual immediacy and accessibility to William Shakespeare’s story of the wayward Prince Hal. He sets the whole thing in a huge brick-walled room (his regular collaborator Hildegard Bechtler’s design) and brings curtains across the stage to change scenes. We’ve got modern dress, lots of smoking, a bare bum and a few guns.

Meanwhile McKellen takes on Falstaff for the first time – he’d always refused the role of the carousing, conning, cowardly, overweight knight until Icke finally persuaded him. His performance here is held together by spittle and splutter and he expectorates his way through his lines, lumbering around the stage, pillow stuffed under his shirt. He’s gouty and grotesque and soaks up all the attention when he’s on stage; basically, he’s as brilliant as ever.

But he also feels like a cartoon splotch on an otherwise realist production. McKellen’s approach is outsized and incongruous, especially in those early scenes when he’s alongside Toheeb Jimoh’s joyous Prince Hal. Jimoh brings such a brilliant energy to Hal, full of a kind of whirling recklessness as he spends his days drinking in the Boar’s Head with his mates. Then his easy presence, his lack of care, hardens as the play goes on. When he’s made king, suddenly his shoulders hunch, he’s awkward in his own skin. It’s amazing to watch.

Related: Ian McKellen shares ‘ghostly’ encounter while waiting for train in London

In fact, most of the first half is great. Just when things get a little dull – BANG! – there’s a war. Chairs start flying in from off stage, debris clunks to the floor. There’s blood, sweat and camo gear in abundance. The second half makes you realise how good the first half was. We’re having to be a bit more thoughtful, when what we really want is some of the punch and raunch of Part 1.

Obviously that’s partly to do with the plays themselves. Henry IV, Part 2 is tonally very different anyway, but when smushed up against Part 1 here it makes the whole endeavour feel like a compromise: Icke’s already chopped enough text and made a few fudges to show that fidelity to the original isn’t a concern, but that only makes you wish he’d gone a bit further and done something truly radical in his adaptation.

Boar’s Head boys: Ian McKellen and Toheeb Jimoh (Manuel Harlan)

And this is maybe the first time an Icke production has felt like a copy-paste job. In previous productions you’d be sucked in by the deftness of the adaptation, the whizzy directing, the intellectual rigour. Here we get bits of all of those, but it’s definitely not sustained across the near four hours. It has all the trappings of being cool – moments feel like a Matthew Vaughn film, with pounding music, violence, swagger and a sense of self-satisfaction – but with them sitting, as they do, on top of an actually quite trad production, the whole thing tips into naffness (not least the parts when a countertenor dressed as a Harkonnen from Dune starts to sing).

McKellen meets Icke could have been magic. In spurts, to be fair, it is. But as Falstaff toddles off into the wings, the overriding sensation is one of trying to convince yourself you’re not disappointed.

‘Player Kings’ will run at the Noël Coward Theatre, London until 22 June

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