Playing the long game in his direction, Gregory Doran has an ethereal long-haired figure in a white gown and crown appear in the first few moments of Henry IV Part I, a not-so-subtle nod to the RSC’s last residency at the Barbican with ‘Richard II’, starring David Tennant, which the action of this play continues from. And it isn’t long before we’re noticing the glances towards the next play, Henry V, either. There’s a real dynastic feel to Henry IV Parts I and II, so rich are the pair in narrative, back story and foreboding.
This RSC production is visually rich, too. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design drapes wood with heavy fabrics and, once it’s all illuminated in deep oranges and shafts of light by Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, the production is as grand as the play’s epic nature demands. And while there are a few moments that drag in the whopping 5 hour 35 minute run of a double bill (matinee and evening performance) they are limited to just a handful: there’s certainly over five hours of really astonishing drama on offer here.
What is most impressive is that in such a large cast not a single character feels wasted and each one is developed with a lot of care and attention across Parts I and II. As a whole piece, Henry IV Parts I and II is crafted with real precision and cohesion but each play is more than strong enough to stand alone.
Part I hums with energy. Young Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is a taught young lothario who we find in flagrantewith a couple of prostitutes. He gallivants through the dens of disrepute in Eastcheap with a gang of ne’er-do-wells including, of course, the flabby – and fantastic – Falstaff (Anthony Sher), a drunk and lecherous old man with a phlegmy throat and a tongue as sharp as a dagger. At court things are far more gloomy as King Henry IV (a brilliantly broody Jasper Britton) talks politics and strategy with his more sensible sons and advisors, while further north their rival Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (Trevor White) plots a rebellion with the warmongering duo Owen Glendower of Wales (Joshua Richards) and The Douglas of Scotland (Sean Chapman).
If the scene by scene interweaving of high drama and low comedy of Part Iis a rollercoaster then its big drop moment is the Battle of Shrewsbury. The fight scenes are flawlessly choreographed and White is particularly fantastic here as Hotspur, both a clenched fist of warring anger and a gleeful excited child in the face of combat.
Anthony Sher inevitably steals all his scenes as Falstaff and there’s an enjoyable dynamic between him and Hassell’s Harry that’s far darker than I’ve seen before. Behind the bawdy jokes, pints of sack and schoolboy pranks with Hal’s partner in crime Ned Poins (Sam Marks), the mood changes to concerned looks and distancing. The tragic end of the friendship looms large over them almost from the outset.
Henry IV Part I has a lot of groundwork to lay for the second part but it does so with flourish, skill, and incredible performance after incredible performance.