What: Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare
Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: April 24th 2014
The Royal Shakespeare Company are publicising Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 as Shakespeare’s finest two plays. I can’t say I agree. Such a claim would make King Lear & Macbeth blush. However, they may well be the point where Shakespeare’s three stylistic modes best meet.
For nearly 400 years, students and theatre-goers have been characterising the Bard’s plays as either histories, comedies or tragedies. In Henry IV we find strong elements of each theme. Indeed, the RSC’s current production of Henry IV Part One brings each of these flavours nicely to the fore, providing a sumptuous feast for those who would venture to the RSC’s principal theatre venue to see this latest treat.
Leaving Henry IV part 2 to one side for the time being (regular visitors to this site will find our review of that venture here in May), let us consider what the RSC and this production’s director, Gregory Doran, have given us on this occasion.
By far the best known actor in the current ensemble is Anthony Sher, who is cast here as Sir John Falstaff, who, whilst not being featured in the title of the play, is certainly its best-known character. Sher last appeared for the RSC in 2009 in The Tempest, a production which was something of a mixed blessing. Here, he is in a much more orthodox reading of a Shakespeare play and as a consequence there is less to detract from the mastery of his performance. If there is any padding involved in Mr Sher’s role. it is merely on the inside of his shirt – an aid to reach Falstaff’s physical proportions. In terms of his acting craft, not a word is wasted, not a gesture or facial contortion over- or under-played.
Most of the rest of the cast, whilst not being of quite this standard, are up to their jobs and more than meet the requirements of the roles – even when casting has given them a double role to play. This is the case for Joshua Richards who is Falstaff’s drinking buddy, Bardolph, and Owen Glendower, the leader of the Welsh tribes. Richards is given the two most outlandish make-up jobs of the night. Bardolph of necessity is all swollen nose and acne. Glendower is almost Viking-like in his appearance. Richards keeps the two clear in his mind and doesn’t mix the two sets of character traits he has awarded them. Simon Thorp and Simon Yadoo are also awarded double roles.
Blemishes? Well, a few – at least on this evening’s performance. Paola Dionisotti, who in recent times has been seen in Richard III and King John and garnered little enthusiasm from this reviewer, was no better here. She is somewhat older than my mental image of Mistress Quickly and at one point on the production appeared to fall over her own feet. This may have been a deliberate pratfall (worthy of Jerry Lewis) but whether or not, there was little else in her performance to raise it even to ordinary.
The other major fault may be seen by comparing the two actors who were cast as the protagonists. In the blue corner, Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, Prince of Wales. In the red corner, Harry “Hotspur” Percy played by Trevor White. Both gave us energetic, driven, passionate performances.
Hassell knew how to draw his character and remain within the realms of a tortured reality – both when battling his conscience between his whore-mongering and his neglected royal duties, and when on the field of battle. Mr White, however, did not know where to draw the line.
As a consequence, we were left with a Harry Percy who resembled Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of “The Riddler” in the 1960s TV series of Batman albeit with a peroxide rinse. White was a mix of manic gesticulation, over-impassioned speeches and bouncing around that came somewhere between the aforementioned Gorshin and Tigger.
But none of this should be allowed to detract from what is, on the whole, a great production of a masterful play with a (mostly) rounded and solid cast, headed by a lead actor who, alone, is worth the admission price and more.