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Henry IV Parts One and Two
There are only a few opportunities in a generation to see Shakespeare's history plays in their entirety. In 2001, the Royal Shakespeare Company brings us their This England series with all eight plays being put on chronologically, first at Stratford, and now in London, from Richard II to Richard III, via the Henries, Henry IV (two parts), Henry V and Henry VI (three parts). With the cast carrying through their roles across the plays and through time, but under different directors, this is a special theatrical event. At the Barbican's main theatre, I was fortunate enough to see both parts of Henry IV on the same day, over six hours of spellbinding theatre. These two plays were not performed together until the twentieth century, when in 1932 the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened at Stratford with Henry IV Parts I and II performed in one day.
The theme of Henry IV is kingship and fathers and sons. Bolingbroke (David Troughton) is the king who carries the guilt of having deposed Richard II, the legitimate monarch, while his son, Prince Hal (William Houston), the future Henry V, has to learn how to be a king from beginnings in the disreputable company of Sir John Falstaff (Desmond Barrit), through battle honours in defence of his father and the realm. Henry IV's reign is troubled with rebellions led by Harry "Hotspur" Percy (Adam Levy). At the end of Part I, Prince Hal saves the life of his father and kills Hotspur. In Part II, the less satisfactory play, Sir John goes on a recruiting drive for soldiers to fight another rebellion. In Gloucestershire, there are some fine comic scenes with Justice Shallow (Benjamin Whitrow) and Silence (Peter Copley) and an unlikely band of recruits. Henry IV is sick, the rebellion is quashed by Prince John of Lancaster (Dickon Tyrell) using treachery rather than bloodshed. Henry IV dies and Henry V publicly rejects Falstaff, while privately making financial arrangements for his former companions.
Michael Attenborough's direction is deft and intelligent. His reading of the plays brings the history to life and there are many visual interpretations of characterisation. Henry IV struggles to take off and on the crown that is always too tight. Henry IV is unable to embrace his son at the beginning and only able to do so after Hal has fought bravely. Falstaff and Hal make their entrance from under the floor and under a cover, crawling out from the latest excess of sack and revelry. For Falstaff's pranks there is a specially composed comic jig, much like a pirate's song and full of low notes.
The battle scenes are magnificently staged on the rake at the rear of the stage, with perspective making the army look like a large force. Various lighting effects shine through a pivoting screen, like an abstract stained glass window. The floor too has an under floor lighting grid of lines and squares for scenes in the palace. But it is the rake on the rear stage which is used to best effect to give a sense of scale. In the second play, the woodland scene with its trees, mist and grass is so real that we can almost smell the country air.
The art is in portraying Falstaff as a liar and a rogue, manipulative and yet still likeable, "Banish plump Jack and banish all the world", a poignant character to be pitied, when he is inevitably cast off by a princely Hal. Desmond Barrit's Falstaff is a masterclass in how to play this most complex of Shakespeare's comic creations. His stage presence, like his physical one, is always large. With his armour on he looks as if he is wearing a pregnancy empathy kit. Willam Houston's Prince Hal is also outstanding, never leaving us in doubt that he l will make a great king. He never truly lets himself join in with Falstaff, he is always aware of Falstaff's shortcomings and distances himself. David Troughton's lugubrious Henry IV is always a man saddened by his past and by his son's companions in comparison to the valiant Percy heir. The comic performances of Silence and Shallow are the highlight of the second play until the cruelty of the near final scene, "I know thee not old man" where Falstaff is rejected by Hal, "Presume not that I am the thing I was."
In the next play Henry V we shall see who the king has become.