Henry IV Part One. Screening from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

Henry IV part one is a wonderful play, moving from the personal to the political and showing us a snapshot of England both at court and in the lively teeming streets of Eastcheap. Along with its second part it brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to the England of the time. We can understand it perfectly as so little of what matters has changed. Look around you and you will find the descendants of Hal, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and the rest. The scope of the play, both socially and emotionally, is fascinating. The history plays were Shakespeare’s most popular works among his contemporary audiences. By the time he wrote Henry IV parts one and two he was an experienced writer who knew exactly what his audiences wanted and how to give them it. We see a national crisis- an inevitable civil war brewing- and a family crisis when a charming, feckless royal son is forced to face up to his duty and destiny and become the great hero that Shakespeare’s audiences knew him to be. Add in a cracking sword fight to end a bitter rivalry and Falstaff, the greatest lovable rogue who has ever walked a stage and there really isn’t a lot more that you can want.

There is a lot to admire about the RSC’s 2014 production. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is a delight. The character was a huge hit right from the start and all of the charm, love of life, selfishness and cynicism which people responded to back then is still irresistible in his performance. I have been lucky enough to see some great Falstaff’s and Antony Sher’s certainly joins the list. It may be a gift of a part but it still needs someone worthy of it to play it. I particularly liked the way that Falstaff’s aristocratic background (he is a Sir) was obvious in the timbre of his voice and his bearing. The necessary rapport with the audience was there and I regretted the fact that I wasn’t there in person to make the most of that aspect. I was completely bowled over by Trevor White’s performance as Hotspur. This is an easy part to shout your way through without much thought but there was real conviction behind every word he spoke and a compelling stage presence. When we saw him alongside his wife, Lady Percy, a lovely performance from Jennifer Kirby, it was also clear to see how their marriage managed to work in spite of everything and this is a difficult thing to get across. He may be a nightmare of a husband but there is a lot more to it than that. Finally, along with Alex Hassell as Hal, he gave us a terrific climax of a sword fight. Jasper Britton had great conviction as Henry IV and I am really looking forward to seeing him in part two. The Eastcheap scenes in the Boar’s Head were very well done, although it is hard to conjure up the tavern atmosphere on a large stage, and I enjoyed Paula Dionisotti’s performance as Mistress Quickly very much. She looked wonderful and I felt as though I understood her perfectly. It was a thoughtful, detailed and very natural performance. Joshua Richards was perfect as Bardolph- his nose and his comic timing were both something to wonder at. I wasn’t quite so sure about the comedy aspect when it came to Alex Hassell as Hal. He certainly looked the part of the young dynamic hero and I don’t want to suggest that he was in any way lacking, but I’m not sure that performance came from the heart in quite the same way. Hal is a character that I fell in love with from the moment I first saw him on stage so maybe I am just very hard to please. I wasn’t sure about the bromance aspect with Poins, much as I found Sam Marks charming as an actor, so that may have influenced me too.

All in all this was a great treat and I still have some of my favourite scenes to come in part two later this month.

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Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.