Continuing his journey through the First Folio, Gregory Doran’s excellent productions of Parts I and II of Henry IV for the Royal Shakespeare Company pick up where his Richard II left off. Reuniting a number of the key creative team and cast of the previous production, Part I opens with the shadowy figure of the dead king looking down from the balcony at his usurper, Jasper Britton’s newly crowned and already conscience-stricken monarch.
Antony Sher and Alex Hassell in Henry IV Part I Photo: Kwame Lestrade
To this existing scaffolding, Doran introduces Antony Sher as the corpulent, debauched Falstaff. Sher’s sack-soaked knight is a toad-throated and ruddy-cheeked figure with a shock of wire-wool hair and a great bag of a belly. He’s buffoonish but never excessively so, capable of both poignancy and insight. While his is in so many ways a stage-filling performance - with each loaded pause, gouty totter and elastic mistruth exquisitely timed - it’s also a generous performance, particularly in the scenes he shares with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal.
The pair are first glimpsed emerging beery and bleary from a tangle of bodies and bedsheets in a bawdy house. Hassell’s Hal is almost too dashing at times. His is a very physical performance. He bounds across the stage, slapping backs and carousing, looking suitably rakish in his red leather jacket. But even from the beginning there’s a layer of calculation evident beneath the considerable charm; even when he’s thieving and whoring there’s a sense he’s a man biding his time.
Trevor White’s blond, volatile Hotspur, on the other hand, can be a jarring presence, but he’s also an excitingly unpredictable one. He’s a cackler and stamper and given to sudden, roaring rages. He’s at his most compelling when sparring with his eloquent and strong-willed wife, Lady Percy, as played by Jennifer Kirby, who makes a very strong impression during her few scenes.
Part I contains both some glorious comic set-pieces and some impressively choreographed fight scenes by Terry King - the climactic battle in which Hotspur and Hal wield two swords apiece the most striking of these.
As hugely entertaining as Part I is, its tone is sometimes so broad as to exclude nuance. Part II is the more subdued and complex of the plays, and allows more room for the characters to grow. There are still a number of memorable comic turns, particularly from Antony Byrne as an explosive Pistol and Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly. But there’s also more space for development as Hassell’s Hal faces up to his future and the narrative focus finally shifts to Britton’s guilt-riddled Henry, ghosted and railing, his health failing. He has seized power and it has cost him dear - Britton conveys his struggle with this; his death is a slow fade, a desperate end. Part II might not have the joyous energy of Part I but it’s the more moving, no more so than when a newly crowned Hal rejects Falstaff.
A contemporary prologue to Part II feels slightly out of place, a thread that is never picked up on again. But otherwise there’s a satisfying sense of world-building to the productions, which, though they work well as stand-alone plays, have a real sense of trajectory when viewed in order. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ slatted set fractures to reveal a woodland backdrop, transporting the audience from the king’s court and the taverns of Eastcheap to battle fields and the Gloucestershire countryside. The lighting, by Tim Mitchell, enhances this transporting quality.
Opening in the run-up to the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, these productions are a real treat: intelligent, accessible and superbly performed. Sher’s Falstaff is a joy, but the same can be said about so much of both these productions.