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.