Antony Sher steals the show with a brilliant portrayal of Falstaff in yet another successful RSC production.
Unfortunately, in contrast to the brilliant Falstaff scenes, the role of Henry IV (Britton) is a bit flat. The opening scene establishes a great atmosphere; the king lies prostrate on the floor, surrounded by chanting men bearing candles, yet Britton’s delivery is dry and he takes a while to really get into the character.
In contrast, Falstaff (Sher) is hilarious from the moment he first pops out from under the Prince’s bedcovers. Sher revels in the role of the charismatic old alcoholic and has the audience laughing every time he appears on stage. The chemistry between Falstaff and the irresponsible Prince Hal (a well-cast Hassel) is tangible and the development of their relationship from fellow debauchees to Hal’s eventual disillusionment is excellently crafted.
The scene where the two men take turns pretending to be the king is particularly funny, insightful and well directed, as is the more disturbing scene later on, when Falstaff sets out a picnic with a huge bottle of wine while the ‘soldiers’ he has rounded up trudge in the background to certain death.
The character of Falstaff is more famous to contemporary audiences than that of the title character and there is a reason, says historian Ian Mortimer, that ‘Shakespeare ignored Henry IV as much as he possibly could’. Portraying the ‘usurper king’ (who’d had his predecessor Richard II assassinated) sympathetically could have landed Shakespeare in trouble with Elizabeth I herself, or even put him in the tower. It is understandable then, that the prince and his unconventional friend dominate the plot. In fact, although the play is often categorised as a history, Sher turns it into comedy with the help of Hassel and the Eastcheap characters.
The costumes are reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings at times, especially Mortimer (aka Legolas) and a Gandalf-like Glendower, but then, it’s easy to forget where Tolkien and Peter Jackson drew their inspiration from. The only thing that didn’t really fit was the use of sound effects – crows, horses, the wind – all of which were too loud, a bit low-budget movie, and didn’t add anything to the production. That and the incongruous appearance of a rifle, not invented until several hundred years after Shakespeare’s death.
The production is well worth seeing for its excellent direction, wonderful script (obviously) and for Sher’s unforgettable performance as Falstaff.