Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 - Royal Shakespeare Company

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 | Royal Shakespeare Company

December 2014 | Barbican Theatre

The RSC with Gregory Doran continue the History Plays series at the Barbican following last years successful Richard II. Henry’s powerful former allies revolt against him in the messy aftermath of Richard’s abdication and murder. It’s the usual affair of armour and chivalry common with the traditional RSC productions popular amongst tourists and regulars but it falls short of the excitement and flair of a realised Shakespeare piece and feels more like the stiff, archaic performance in a static, formulaic manner that feels REALLY long (something which figures like John Barton worked hard to overcome.) This review will attempt to emulate this verily; prepare for nit-picking in a blandly structured essay.

Performer break-down:

Antony Sher plays the role of big theatre name, with the obligatory ‘young posh man’ Alex Hassell (Jude Law lookalike that sounds like George from Blackadder) accompanied by the generic middle aged men that fill the mostly generic cast, with certain nobodies actually being good while others do the job enough in the way that is very forgettable. Hassell is an experienced actor for the RSC and the more adventurous Factory Theatre Company, but seems to lack conviction as Prince Hal, relying too much just on (George’s) voice for expression despite its limited variety in tone, making a poor visual communicator, save for a bizarre lotus style position showing off a toned yoga body for 13th century england (guess that got a note from the AD). Sher as Falstaff, though, is very good. His vocal rumbling and gravelly husk of a drunk gets a touch wearisome but the delivery demonstrates the practice, sensitivity and natural control of Shakespeare’s text that makes him highly regarded as an actor, hitting the right notes and nuances that confirms his noble undertones behind the criminal. Also Antony Byrne deserves a nod for Thomas Percy and Pistol, two vastly different roles with life and energy (not forgetting the simple but significant speech by Rumour setting the context and tone for Part 2.) RSC regulars Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper also bring some character in Part 2, managing to draw out the dialogue of Shallow and Silence with long pauses of senility and confusion, yet it’s the most interesting and snappy part of either show. Jasper Britton succeeds as a dishevelled King Henry, never fully in control and, like reluctant Bolingbroke at the end of Richard II, there is a sense that he wasn’t prepared to be king (which is nicely referenced for the opening of Part 1 with the figure of Richard II looming down on him, the very image that closed Richard II.) Trevor White (-hair) plays Hotspur like a sheep dog, running in circles across the stage trying to control everyone. Overall it’s a good effort on his behalf but littered with discrepancies; a hint of Canadian(?) seeps in, his outbursts and sporadic movement became tiresome and a pattern emerged [dash-text-text, text-dash-text , dash-text-dash = ‘BAD’] his neutral posture was like an Action Man doll or Karate stance, arms by the side, slightly bent, this survived Hotspur’s death into Lord Mowbray, no wig and costume change could hide it. Hotspur has all the good lines and speeches, which is Shakespeare’s doing, but it helps White look good. Lady Percy is also quite good, but again, that’s Shakespeare’s characterisation. Lastly, Paola Dionisotti brings a touch of Eastenders as the East Cheap Tavern Lady- Mistress Quickly, whose Dot Cotton character and dialogue is also well communicated against a flock of generic ‘pub’ ensemble. It’s a genuine performance and she stands her ground amongst the surrounding blandness (Shakespeare is widely used to generate story lines for soap operas, except for the Plane Crash in Emmerdale, which was originally George Bernard Shaw).

The audience seemed to be made up of tourists and the regular RSC fans that missed the shows in Stratford-upon-Avon. This may be one of the reasons the show wasn’t sold out, which is unfortunate for the performers when they are exhaustingly committing to two long shows. Then again maybe because it was at Stratford that there are less audiences for London, or that most people know that Part 2 is more or less a redundant play written to fulfill the demand for more ‘Falstaff’ for contemporary Shakespearean audiences. So it’s the loyal RSC audience that pay to see men in armour shouting their lines in the old fashioned declamatory style (‘declamation’ in the way they speak, but the audience are barely addressed/acknowledged by the actors except the specifically direct moments.) Sadly, the more adventurous RSC productions don’t venture down to London; perhaps the Barbican should arrange more space in the schedule for the company that used to run the Theatre Department. Then again, why should they, when they’ve got four Shakespeare plays coming up? Two versions of Hamlet (another Pyramid cast with a big name at the top; hope no one books the wrong one by accident..) Measure for Measure and Macbeth.

For Historical context Gregory Doran is committed, a technically shrewd Director for exposition. His dramaturgy is logical and creative, for example his treatment of Richard II was loaded with tricks to make the context of the time more present and realised for today’s audience (Shakespeare’s audience would be more familiar with the history, presumably.) For example, a court scene was turned into a funeral to emphasise the immediate political situation and dynamic between certain characters; see comment on Part 1 opening. The set itself was ultimately more glamourous, with emphasis on ‘ascension’ and ‘descension’ with a flying platform that brings and takes Richard into to the heavens; his majesty is a divine right. This is contrasted with Henry IV’s dark and dusty castle, which may be interpreted as the plain functional desires of the King that broke the line of Divinely selected Kings, but it also needs to double up as East Cheap Tavern. Either way this set is much less inspiring to look at, and makes the play feel flat, especially when it’s not being carried scene by scene.

Henry IV is the least interesting of this series, remarkably so, since Falstaff is meant to be a favourite, there’s a genuinely interesting power struggle worthy of a Machiavellian commentary, great speeches and characters and a battle scene. These productions feel lacking in this respect, not without certain moments, but overall never really finding the spark. This could easily be because of the sheer scale of the project. Perhaps the actors are tired and who can blame them having already had a long run before London? (I haven’t had the privilege to see an early show at Stratford-upon-Avon, yet.) After I had an unexpected second viewing of Part 1 later in the run, there was no change in the performances, no evolution in the characters, no new discoveries or variations; just watching actors go through the blocking like clockwork.

Surely the singular production of Henry V will fare better, and with great anticipation. But if the RSC (Gregory Doran) is going to stick to the formula of men in suits of armour shouting lines for two and a half hours at the ‘big theatre name’ (which is likely for this series) then they will have to start pulling tricks out of the hat not to repeat this confused piece and become, dare I say it, like those toxic Shakespearean endeavors that puts audiences off altogether.

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