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A CurtainUp London Review
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2
We have learnt to love this rogue, to relish his quick repartee, his knowing glances at the audience, his bombast, his utter, utter selfishness, his greed and avarice, and a depth of character that so obviously attracts the fascination of a wayward and youthful prince, as well as the base sexual desire of London's poorest women. Love. A strong word. But love we do, because the Globe's Falstaff is as real and as human and as vulnerable and as annoying as any beloved grandfather or uncle.
Roger Allam is Falstaff. That simple statement fails to convey the magic of Allam's performance. This is no comic-book caricature, no clowning padded oaf. Allam's Falstaff is all man, all man-mountain, a sparring partner for any aristocrat and a worthy opponent for any jumped-up authority figure. Rarely without a glass of "good sherris sack" or a dainty morsel licked from a spoon, this Falstaff farts and pisses his way though life, avoiding that one thing his knightly status should guarantee, "honour".
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre London is the site of this wonderful foray into Elizabethanized national history. The reconstructed Globe seems perfectly suited to recreate the inner world of the Boar's Head Tavern in seedy Eastcheap, or the simple splendour of the Palace of Westminster, with its huge upstage banner flaunting the royal coat of arms that billows in the afternoon (and evening) breeze. Jonathan Fensom's design adds slightly to the Globe's forestage, situates an island platform in the midst of the groundlings for a pre-show mummer show, and erects a scaffold to the rear of stage to add additional acting space, but his costumes remain faithful to their Elizabethan roots. This is the Globe at its best.
Dominic Dromgoole has embraced two plays which, although ostensibly two sides of the same coin, display a distinct difference in mood and style when played side-by-side. The first, Henry IV Part 1, introduces the principal protagonists, those characters we will learn to love (though rarely loathe). It also introduces a hot-blooded rebel whose eventual defeat on the field of battle provides the perfect opportunity for Prince Hal to prove his true worth.
The second, Henry IV Part 2, develops the themes of rebellion and counter-insurgency, reintroducing the beloved characters from Part 1, whilst adding new delights to the cast of London and provincial misfits, all the prey of that ultimate parasite, Falstaff. So, the magnificent William Gaunt gives a fine and dignified performance as the rebellious
Worcester in Part 1, only to return in 2 as Justice Shallow, a piping senile old dodderer with a penchant for handsome young boys and a decidedly lascivious memory of past conquests and delights. Allam and Gaunt onstage together? Theatrical magic.
Likewise Falstaff's diminutive sidekick, the fiery-faced Bardolph, is a comic masterpiece in the hands of Paul Rider. Doubling convincingly as the serious prelate, the Archbishop of York, Rider is at his glorious best when growling wryly at his assembled compatriots, or barking like a demented sergeant major in a 1930s British 'B'' movie. Christopher Godwin's Silence is a study in comic senility, whilst Jason Baughan's Peto, Fang and Wart are individual creatures of delight conjured by an actor whose face looks like it has recently had an altercation with a runaway train, and won.
The women's roles, less significant in the narrative, are no less well served. Barbara Marten presents a Mistress Quickly who is so flustered by the circumstance of her successful tavern-cum-brothel that she seems fit to burst at the slightest provocation. There is an utter love/hate relationship between Quickly and Falstaff, one that the old knight can manipulate with the merest gyration of his ample groin against the willowy sinews of Mistress Quickly's used and abused body. No wonder she is so eager to offer the young delights of Doll Tearsheet, played with fire and passion by Jade Williams. The knight's passions are obviously too inflamed for Quickly to quench; it takes Tearsheet's ever-inviting charms to raise Falstaff's spirits, and much else besides.
What is most surprising when seeing Dominic Dromgoole's excellent productions back-to-back is how self-contained the two plays are, as well as how good the oft-neglected Part 2 can be, especially for its comedy, high drama and bittersweet ending. In both plays, Oliver Cotton as the majestic Henry IV rules supreme. In both plays, Jamie Parker as Prince Hal cavorts with teenage glee among his unruly compatriots. Nevertheless, it is Part 2 that portrays the spiritual reuniting of father with son in a scene as movingly powerful as any modern drama, allowing the peaceful death of one monarch and the glorious rise of another. The King is dead, long live the King. It is also Part 2 that allows the comedy villains to develop a depth both exciting and unexpected in its quality and texture.
You can enjoy either play in isolation, or, even better, both plays in quick succession. You will never, though, forget Roger Allam as Falstaff, nor that moment when, after all his adventures, his hand trembles uncontrollably at his side. It is this 'King-Lear-meets-Malvolio' moment of abject despair that defines the honesty of Allam's portrayal of Falstaff, one which I, for one, will never forget.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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