Henry IV Part One

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The Barbican (RSC production)

FirstFolioHenryIV1

In a fit of – I don’t know exactly what but it certainly wasn’t sanity – I bought tickets to see The King and Country tetralogy (also known as the Hollow Crown) over three days at the Barbican. This is the second of the four – the first is Richard II.

There was a lovely sense of coming together in coming back to the Barbican – we were starting to make friends with the people around us and actually talk about the show in a way you don’t normally do with strangers. Given the last two plays are in a marathon back-to-back session, we’ll probably be blood-sworn brothers and sisters before the week is out.

Henry IV usually seems to me to be an uneasy mix of seriousness and jollity, rebellion and rakehell ways. This production managed to find a more harmonious balance than most by finding much humour in Hotspur, which I heartily approved of. It’s not like there isn’t plenty to work with in the script:

Glend. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hot. Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

The setting remained as medieval as Richard II – although the projected arches found themselves joined by a crucifix and an oriel window, and those chains I found so odd serve remarkably well for an Eastcheap tavern*. The costumes seem as drab as ever, save for Prince Hal’s snowy white shirt. Surely a deliberate contrast with the less bleached (less pure) outfits of the rest of his crowd. A nice touch, to have his and King Henry’s costumes so neatly matched in colour – though in style the King has taken up Richard’s tendency for robes and Hal appears to be wearing skinny jeans.

Otherwise the actual staging of the play felt more modern – actors give space to (ever-so-gently) lean on the fourth wall, and a more conscious sense of drama and external influence – apparent from the start when Henry and his companions announce their intention of going to Jerusalem and all at once pull back their priestly robes to reveal the costumes of knights Templar. For the most part, the staginess suited the play very well.

I said last night that Henry IV is not the star of these plays – and that’s true – but the continuity of casting helped to foster a deeper understanding of Henry’s feelings, and the actions of his antagonists. It was easy to feel their hurts more deeply when you had seen their cause only yesterday. Stronger too was the parallel between Bolingbroke and Hotspur as potential usurpers, and Richard and Henry (Bolingbroke as was) as the kings rebelled against. And although Henry wins the day by fighting his rebels as Richard lost it without bloodshed, I don’t think that Shakespeare was writing Henry IV part one as a pro-war play. Hotspur after all, that acknowledge flower of soldierly youth, dies without even managing to finish his final speech, while Hal, who sought to avoid bloodshed, is praised, raised in honour, and alive.

Hotspur. O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts the slave, of life, and life time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for-                                        [Dies.]
Prince Hal. For worms, brave Percy.

Hal and Hotspur’s battle I did not like – it smacked too much of stage-fighting and choreography, not enough of hate and desperation. The two-sworded section** threatened to break from war to morris-dancing with weapons – again, I wondered if it was lack of re-rehearsal time which had taken away a previous edge.

So the scenes in Eastcheap act as a greatly marked contrast to the court – not just the bustle (and it was always a far more crowded set than the sterile, bare court) but the fun. There were some fabulous in-jokes shared with the audience – especially the cough everyone gave when Mistress Quickly spoke of her “husband” – and it was altogether entirely understandable why Hal would spend time there and not with his careworn father.

The undisputed star of this production was Anthony Sher’s Falstaff, which made me sad. Not because he was anything less than marvellous – he wasn’t – but because I like my Falstaff to steal the show like the rogue he is. The problem is that Falstaff is an objectionable arrant knave, a drunkard who owes money, commits crimes, takes bribes. We should like him in spite of all this, unwillingly, not be presented with him as the choicest morsel in the play. Otherwise he ends up with more flattering deference than a Prince of Wales as hot-blooded as Hal would actually show.

Alex Hassel as Hal I entirely approved of***. He played a restless, fidgety Hal – never still save in his father’s presence – a wonderful physical embodiment of his mental state. Overall he was an intelligent, fun-loving, honourable-at-heart prince that I am looking forward to sending more time with (which I good since I’ll be spending bloody ages with him tomorrow!).

Kudo also goes to the women – Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly, holding her own against Falstaff, Jennifer Kirby as Lady Percy, quite as quick to battle as her husband, if a little more equipped with brains, and Emma King as Lady Mortimer – a part which involves just talking Welsh**** and singing, but with which she still managed to convey a depth of sadness. That perfect blend of humour and seriousness which pervaded the whole production.

 


 

* I have been drinking around Eastcheap, and none of them look like that now, alas. Never mind the lack of sweet rascally princes…

** Two swords each – four in total…

*** I’m sure he’ll be so relieved.

**** The stage directions literally just say “The Lady speaks in Welsh”.

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