After the wonderful, rich production and interpretation of Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was hugely looking forward to Henry IV, Parts One and Two directed by always-previously-reliable Gregory Doran. Well, finally, as far as I am concerned – and despite many opinions to the contrary – I’m afraid that Doran has done wrong.
Perhaps I was attending an “off” day when the cast was coasting on technique, and if so I would love to try again; but essentially I was totally unconvinced by the interpretation and by a good deal of the acting. The audience seemed to be attuned to the idea that Henry IV (a ten act play in two parts, really) was mainly a star turn for whoever plays Falstaff – in this case, Anthony Sher. He got the star’s applause at the end, but the problem is that the play is about so much more and his relationship with Prince Hal. He is the “other” father – the man who must believably have something that makes him loveable, appealing and a kind of alternative mentor for the young prince.
In this case, Sher’s Falstaff comes across as simply manipulative, self-seeking and irritatingly crass throughout. It’s not that he’s also full of life and outrageous energy that he cannot be fettered. Sher’s line delivery is very mannered. I didn’t feel he really believed in himself as Falstaff, that he inhabited the role. None of the humour, none of the warmth was there for me. Prince Hal, played by Axel Hassell, who certainly looks plausible in the part, mostly shouted his lines.
Most of the actors in the major roles seemed to me to be merely declaiming their lines. It was all very professional, and no one tripped up, but the whole production simply didn’t gel. I know Hotspur is angry, look at his nickname; but played by Trevor White he came across as a tetchy young bully in a blonde wig, not a plausible balance to Prince Hal. There was no sense that he was gambling his life for very high stakes or that he understood the games of dynasties that he was playing. Throughout the production the actors seemed to me to have pnonly a forced and fake hilarity. And when Prince Hal rejected Falstaff at the end, though Hassell was by then growing into his role as king quite well, I felt none of the ambiguity of his old love for the man on the one hand and his realization that the relationship had no place left to go on the other.
One of the points of the plays for me has always been that Prince Hall grows and matures and that Falstaff does not. Falstaff is a fantastical anti-hero who stands as a real mockery of received behaviour and opinion, who has to be an appealing rex bibendi figure, a roaring Dionysian of mythic energy, a reveller, an instinctive Life Force, and then he plays himself out by being unable to adapt to the changing situation of his world and by becoming too greedy to understand the limits and one-sidedness of his way of life.
The play is a very rich one and Jasper Britton manages to convey something of the torment and grandeur of Henry IV himself. But as for this production, I am afraid that I left unconvinced; and certainly much less entertained by the play than in a very long time.