Friday, April 25, 2014

'Henry IV Part 1' by William Shakespeare

25 April 2014

On Wednesday I was in Stratford-upon-Avon, as a guest of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday. The evening culminated in a spectacular fireworks display outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after we had watched Greg Doran's production of Henry IV Part 1. Many people (including The Guardian's Michael Billington) claim Henry IV Part 1 is Shakespeare's greatest play. I'm not really in a position to judge but I have had a soft spot for the work since I studied it for 'O' level. Watching it again for the first time since seeing the National Theatre production in 2005 (which featured Michael Gambon as Falstaff) I thought about what makes this Shakespeare so special. Comparing it to the other history plays, I think the balance between the macro political story and the personal development of the characters is more even. The contrast between the scenes at court and the inn scenes is so stark they sometimes seem to have come from different plays. This makes the crossover between these two worlds particularly fascinating and, for all the inevitable focus on the wonderful character of Falstaff, this is Hal's play. In the RSC production, Alex Hassell showed us a very convincing transition between the playboy prankster and the warrior prince, maturing before our eyes. In contrast, Trevor White's peroxide blonde Hotspur was a manic, grinning adolescent – easily over-excited and bouncing all over the stage. It was interesting to see Henry IV so soon after watching Greg Doran's Richard II (reviewed here in December 2013). Jasper Britton, as Henry, started proceedings on Wednesday by placing the crown upon his head as the shadowy figure of Richard (with David Tennant's flowing locks) appeared briefly on a balcony, before fading from view – reminding us of Henry Bolingbroke's violent coup at the end of the previous play. But it is Falstaff who is naturally the centre of attention in Henry IV Part 1 and Anthony Sher's portrayal of the portly knight was compellingly brilliant. Sher managed to make Falstaff both incredibly funny and unnervingly unlikeable. The battlefield scene in which he offers a desperate unarmed Prince Hal the loan of his pistol, only for Hal to discover that the holster merely contains a bottle of sack, was truly chilling – with Falstaff's childish giggling completely out-of-place with the Prince's frustrated fury. Anthony Sher is an electric presence on a stage and it is very hard to take your eyes off him. But he makes Falstaff more than a mere clown, giving us a much more complex character – one we long to see again whilst also despising him. 

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