The RSC are giving Shakespeare a rest this Christmas. While the main theatre has its usual family-friendly show with David Edgar’s adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’, the Swan Theatre hosts Imperium – Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels. At over 6 hours of theatre, spread over two shows, this one is perhaps a little less family-friendly. But it has three long books to cover, not just a slim volume of Dickens.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is of course a treat, and particularly a visual treat, although not because of lavish scenery. At times it needs only a top hat and a dress coat here, a couple of doors there, to summon up Victorian London, or perhaps more specifically Dickensian London. The scene with Mr. Fezziwig in Scrooge’s youth is probably not really Victorian, but captured so perfectly the Dickensian image of a slightly earlier period that it seemed to bring the original book illustration to life.
Phil Davis is well cast as Scrooge, surely partly on the basis of his earlier role as Smallweed in the TV adaptation of Bleak House. I didn’t find his personal journey to greater empathy and happiness entirely convincing though. There’s neither a gradual process of understanding, nor a sudden epiphany – more just a feeling of well yes, of course I see that, which is difficult to square with his earlier attitudes.
But the bigger difficulty I have with this production is the role of Dickens, who wanders in and out of the action with his friend, and later biographer, John Forster. David Edgar and the Director, Rachel Kavanaugh, seem to have decided that the story doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It risks being seen as – well, a feel-good family-friendly Christmas show. So they rather ram down our throats the message that Dickens was not just writing a Christmas ghost story – he was a campaigner trying to draw attention to some of the social evils of the time. Slightly bizarrely they show Forster having to convince Dickens, the great storyteller, that a story might be the best way to get his political and social message across.
But in doing so they seem to be denying this very premise. They don’t trust the storyteller to get his message across through the story – they have to give him a second chance to air his views by talking directly to the audience as well. Dickens didn’t have to do that – he could just publish the story and let it stand on its own – and the RSC shouldn’t need to either.
‘Imperium’ too has a narrator, who both takes part in the action and stands back from it to pass comment on it, but at least here it’s a device that comes directly from the book. Joseph Kloska plays Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and biographer. He’s very likeable in the role, although it’s slightly odd that he seems not to age, while his master does. The role works much better than with Dickens in a Christmas Carol, and partly because it’s treated a little less earnestly and more tongue in cheek.
There’s still a feeling though that the RSC isn’t quite prepared to trust its audience to draw their own conclusions. As one example, at a key point in the first play they plant in the audience’s mind the idea that perhaps it was Cicero himself who wrote some forged letters. They then reinforce the idea with muttering from one of his slaves about the role he had to play in the affair. But that’s not enough – at the end of the play, as though delivering the final coup, they reveal that, surprise surprise, Cicero wrote the letters.
It felt similar in the second play when Mark Anthony’s continual drunken staggering seemed mainly designed to reinforce the point, repeated several times, that his wife was the real power behind the throne. A few lines of carefully crafted dialogue, or perhaps even a single raised finger, could have made the point far more effectively. Or given that the plays were very light on female roles, we could perhaps have heard more directly from Fulvia herself, with less focus on her alleged puppet (compare Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth for example). As it is, the women in the play are little more than caricatures, there for sentimentality or for cheap jokes about licentiousness or avarice.
And what on earth was going on with the apparent appearance of Julius Caesar’s ghost, screaming ‘Avenge me’, at his state funeral? Were Mark Anthony’s words not enough indication that were those who would be seeking revenge? I don’t recall Shakespeare having to make the point quite so unsubtly. Subtlety was not really the strong point of this version, certainly not when it came to a perma-tanned, bouffant-haired Pompey declaring “I’m a Republican”.
Perhaps I protest too much. No-one is claiming that this is Shakespeare. For all the lack of subtlety, these were two wonderfully enjoyable evenings of theatre. Richard McCabe held them together with a strong performance as Cicero and impressive stamina, channelling his inner Tony Hancock into moments of world-weary cynicism inbetween his oratorical triumphs and disasters. I enjoyed too the performance of Peter de Jersey as Julius Caesar, convincing both as a military leader and as a smooth politician, where you could always sense the steel hand beneath his velvet glove.
My mental image of Henry V, assembled more from references elsewhere than from actually seeing it, was of a stirring tale of English valour against the odds – a very patriotic, even nationalist play and certainly a very serious one. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech are so much a part of our culture that they define the play if you’re not familiar with it.
So it was bit of a shock to discover that the play itself, at least in this production, is almost more a knockabout comedy than a tale of heroism, or a reflection on the nature of war. Getting the balance right between the two seemed difficult to me, and I wasn’t sure that the RSC quite managed it. If Bardolph, Nym and Pistol, brought over from Henry IV, were the only comic characters it would be fine, but we have another comedy set up with a Scotsman, Welshman and Irishman, a comic scene in the French court where the Princess is trying to learn English, another with one of the King’s soldiers (Williams) who ends up striking him, and even in the more serious scenes, the French Dauphin seems to be treated largely as a comic character.
With all that going on, the transition from comedy to stirring speeches, or to the King’s introspection, seems crucial. How do you deal with a comedy Scotsman, followed by an order from the King to kill the French prisoners? Some of the comedy was brilliantly done – assuming it’s still OK in the 21st century to mock the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and the French through stereotypes, in a manner that certainly wouldn’t be OK for some other nationalities. Some of the serious stuff was brilliantly done too, and Alex Hassall carried off the title role well – entirely convincing in the transition from Prince Hal in Henry IV to the warrior king here. He delivered the stirring speeches well, looked the part of a heroic leader, but still convinced in the more introspective speeches and in his bumbling courtship of the French princess.
I also enjoyed the staging, which made good use of the thrust stage, but seemed much simpler in terms of scenery or props than most RSC productions. That made sense of Oliver Ford Davies’ role as the Chorus, powerfully urging us to use our imaginations. Sometimes there are so many visual flourishes at the RSC that imagination is hardly required.
But I wasn’t entirely sure that the transition from comedy to seriousness worked so well. The English (or British?) army was presented as such a ragbag bunch of misfits that its conversion to a supreme fighting force capable of defeating an army several times its size, seemed little short of a miracle. If it was King Henry’s oratory that did the trick, it wasn’t obvious here. His passionately delivered ‘What’s he that wishes so?’ speech, seemed to be met with a sullen silence. If Chris Robshaw’s inspirational words to his team were met with that kind of reaction, then it’s no wonder that England are out of the Rugby World Cup.
The RSC use the Swan Theatre primarily to show the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, presumably to help us see Shakespeare’s work in context. That’s a laudable aim, and one which the director of this play, Trevor Nunn, was instrumental in establishing. But from what I’ve seen there recently, what it does above all is to show that Shakespeare was completely out of context – a one-off genius whose work had as little in common with his contemporaries as Ronaldo and Messi have in common with most England footballers. Highlights of Jonjo Shelvey’s career might look impressive enough shown on their own, but would be less so back to back with those of Ronaldo.
Volpone is a cleverly enough worked play and it’s been given the full RSC treatment here, with all the verve and style that the company brings to almost all its productions. But is the underlying play really good enough to justify the treatment? It seems to have none of Shakespeare’s subtlety, none of his beautiful language, none of the complexities of character. The characters seem mostly one-dimensional caricatures acting out a story that is really just an overblown fable. As an example, I enjoyed the scenes with Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-Be, but in Shakespeare these would be the incidental characters, not advancing the plot much, but providing a comic interlude and offsetting the more deeply characterised leading roles. Here they’re the caricatures offsetting the caricatures.
Henry Goodman’s portrayal of Volpone is certainly a bravura performance, evoking memories of Bernie Madoff (is there even a physical resemblance?), with his share price running on an electronic ticker tape across the top of the stage, and an odd taste for personal freak show cabaret. The setting of the play is uncompromisingly modern, with camera entry-phones, personal assistants and selfies. It sounded as if some of the text had been updated too, since Jonson presumably knew little of the Euro and seems unlikely to have written about crop circles or how to shorten quarantine periods for Ebola, even in a roundabout way.
Volpone starts the play by worshipping his gold, and immediately casts himself in an unfavourable light. But as the play goes on, his position becomes a bit more nuanced. Are we even supposed to admire Volpone in an odd sort of way? We’re clearly not meant to feel any sympathy for his dupes (as it was difficult to feel too much sympathy for some of the major investors fooled by Madoff), and Goodman’s performance certainly draws admiration as he displays an astonishing versatility.
His transformation in a matter of seconds from a suave Madoff into a dribbling bed-ridden patient on the verge of death is phenomenal, as is the later change from dribbling patient to serenading lover, whose wooing turns suddenly menacing. His grandstanding as an Italian snake-oil salesman is a joy to behold, and his final turn as a disguised court guard is another triumph, seemingly based on Ronnie Barker’s performance as Fletcher in ‘Porridge’. Then after justice has been meted out to him and to others at the end of the play, Volpone is allowed to come back and explicitly ask for our applause – well merited by the performance, but still an odd role to give to a character who surely should deserve little sympathy. It feels as if a forger who has just duped clients into over-paying for fake Rembrandts, has come back and asked for his own artistic talent to be recognised and rewarded.
Amongst the other roles, Miles Richardson was convincing as the lawyer Voltore, and Annette McLaughlin strutted her stuff impressively as Lady Politic Would-Be, on towering heels almost as high as those worn by Ankur Bahl in his role as a hermaphrodite lackey, nurse and cabaret artist. But this was really the Henry Goodman show, with a performance that may live longer in the mind than the play itself.
Plenty of interest and some very good performances in this production of Othello at Stratford. Some of the effects and the choices by the Director, Iqbal Khan, worked really well, others I was less sure about. The stand out performance was from Lucian Msamati as an unrepentant Iago, whose laugh as the lights went down at the end of the play was spinechilling. That he’s a black actor needn’t have been important – he wasn’t playing a role in which skin colour is really significant – but Khan chooses to make it important, using it almost to set the tone for the production, emphasising racist elements and changing the dynamic with Othello, and particularly with Cassio.
In the scene where Iago conspires to get Cassio drunk and violent, the production seemed to move a long way away from Shakespeare, with Iago singing (beautifully) an African folk song and Cassio taking part in a rap contest, that reveals him as a closet racist. That Iago should resent his black commander promoting a less experienced and racist white man above him made some sense, but it made less sense of the position of Othello, who in a multi-racial army was no longer the outsider, himself the obvious victim of racism. It was also hard to see Othello as ‘the noble Moor’ when he’s portrayed as both complicit in torture and not above using it himself on Iago – so hardly noble, even without considering whether he’s a Moor or not.
Hugh Quarshie as Othello turns suddenly to jealousy and to violence in a powerful scene that makes some sense of what is to come, but is less obviously connected to what went before. This is a sudden eruption of the green-eyed monster, not a slow-burning build up. Was violence just under the surface, coming from his background as a military commander, more than as an outsider?
Iago on the other hand, is allowed to build some sympathy with the audience that makes it difficult for much of the play to see him as the personification of evil. He’s more of a good-natured rogue, closer to Sid James than the Borgias until his scheming reaches its tragic climax and that chilling laugh breaks out. Throughout though there’s little sympathy with his wife in a relationship that is put into stark contrast with the relationship between Othello and Desdemona.
As usual, the RSC made good use of its versatile stage, here filling a central section with water, used in the first scene as a Venetian canal, and later as a bathing pool for Desdemona. A grille rose and fell to expose the water, cover it over with a platform or even double as a table. We’re used to spectacular effects in modern theatre, but I know nowhere else that’s as innovative and adaptable in its use of space as the RSC on its Stratford stage.
The setting and costumes were quite difficult to pin down . Much of it appeared to be present day, with echoes of Iraq in the images of torture, faffing around with aerials to improve laptop connections, and one speech delivered as if through video-conferencing. Some of the costumes though, particularly for the women, and some of the other design elements, seemed much more traditional. But despite any small quibbles, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and another success for the RSC.
Sue and I agreed at the end of March last year that we would go to the theatre at least once a month for the next year. I don’t think I’ve ever managed that before in my life, but we’ve now achieved it and it’s been a glorious year. There are links below to my reviews of each play, but overall we’ve seen some wonderful theatre and some outstanding performances.
Certainly it helps that we’re close enough to visit Stratford regularly, and we’re rarely disappointed by anything we see at the RSC. I’ve enjoyed visiting the theatre there for many years, but it seems to me to go from strength to strength. The new stage is just brilliant and a massive vindication of all the effort that went into transforming the theatre and the associated fundraising. One of the most striking observations for me over the year has been how restricting the proscenium arch stages in other theatres are in comparison with the thrust stage at Stratford. It’s given huge freedom to the directors there and they’ve seized the opportunity with both hands. Even the highest priced seats at other theatres can sometimes offer a view that’s disappointing in comparison with the cheapest seats at Stratford. We sat in the Upper Circle last week and had a fantastic view of a production that was constantly entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The quality of acting and of speaking is invariably high, from the leading actors down to the smallest part, there’s almost always live music to support the productions, the sets and the costumes are beautifully done and the overall standard of production is superb.
When we’ve strayed further afield though we’ve found plenty to delight us. Three very enjoyable trips to the Theatre Royal in Bath and one to the Everyman in Cheltenham to see touring productions, and two fantastic productions at the National in London. If what we’ve seen over the last year is at all representative of the current standard of theatre in Britain, then it’s in rude health.
So what were the highlights? In terms of individual performances, seeing Anthony Sher play both Falstaff and Willy Loman has been hard to beat, although Simon Russell Beale as King Lear may have run him close. In terms of productions, it’s even harder to choose. ‘Great Britain’ at the National Theatre was certainly a highlight, as was Sher’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, but overall I’m not sure there was anything I enjoyed more than the combination of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Much ado about Nothing’ played with a single cast and a single setting at Stratford. Not Shakespeare’s finest plays, and not played with a stellar cast, but both of them a visual delight, beautifully produced, directed, acted and spoken and hugely entertaining throughout.
The other question then is what next? The year may be finished, but the appetite has only been whetted, and I hope to see many more plays over the next twelve months and beyond. Maybe a bit less obsessively scheduled as at least one every month, but still regularly seen, and if I can manage it, still regularly reviewed on this blog.
Full list of plays seen with links to the reviews
Moon on a rainbow shawl (Errol John) – Theatre Royal, Bath
King Lear (Shakespeare) – National Theatre, London
The roaring girl (Decker & Middleton) – Swan Theatre, Stratford
Wolf Hall & Bring up the bodies (Poulton / Mantel) – Aldwych Theatre, London
Great Britain (Richard Bean) – National Theatre, London
Henry IV Part I (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Henry IV Part II (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Regeneration (Barker / Wright) – Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl et al) – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Love’s Labour’s Lost (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
The Christmas Truce (Phil Porter) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Much ado about Nothing (Shakespeare) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Arcadia (Tom Stoppard) – Theatre Royal, Bath
Oh what a lovely war (Joan Littlewood et al) – Theatre Royal, Bath
Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Perhaps an unusual play to take over the main stage in Stratford, normally devoted to the works of Shakespeare at this time of year, but ‘Death of a salesman’ comes with a huge reputation as one of the best and most significant plays of the 20th century. If it’s a gamble by the RSCs Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, to put on a non-Shakespeare production, then being able to call on Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter to star in it, must reduce the risk a lot, and he has ended up with a wonderful success to justify his decision.
Anthony Sher gives a great performance as washed up salesman Willy Loman, entirely convincing as his mood swings between buoyant optimism and suicidal depression. I’ve never seen the play before so I can’t compare him against other actors, and it’s clearly a great part to get your teeth into, but I thought it was a stunning performance. Harriet Walter has a less meaty part as his wife, but was the perfect foil, having to deal with his constantly changing moods, but always supportive, understanding his character better then he does himself and entreating their sons to make allowances for him.
As always the RSC produced a great ensemble performance, making dynamic use of the thrust stage, and the swings in time and setting as well as mood were well handled. I particularly liked the transformation from a domestic scene to an outdoor one as actors rose standing still from below and then suddenly switched into action to create the criss-crossing bustle of the city streets.
Alex Hassell, having played Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff earlier in the year in Henry IV, produces another good performance as Biff. He seems to be the RSC’s rising star, slated to play Henry V as well in the autumn, and as with Henry, here he has to play both the older Biff and his younger self, which doesn’t look easy to carry off. There’s not the same growth and maturing that there is with Prince Hal, as Biff seems to be stuck in a pattern of petty theft. But he too achieves some kind of maturity with his realisation that he may be better off working outside, even if it means giving up on the American dream that his father and his brother Happy (well played by Sam Marks) still seem enthralled by.
Are the RSC right that ‘Much ado about nothing’ was once known as ‘Love’s Labours Won’, the title they’re using for this production? I’m happy to leave that to the Shakespeare scholars. I didn’t feel they made a particularly strong case here for any direct Shakespearean link between the two plays, but they created plenty of links of their own, through set design, music, casting and costume. All these aspects succeeded marvellously in ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ and they’re no less successful here. The two productions taken together are a gloriously exuberant experience, whether or not there’s a lost link between them.
Perhaps more than anything I loved the set design, by Simon Higlett, with scenes sliding in and out and up and down, all directly based on nearby Charlecote Park. A billiards table rises up from below, for Don John and Borachio to play on while plotting the downfall of the lovers; an entire chapel slides in from the back for the wedding scene, the drawing room dominated by a massive Christmas tree comes in and out repeatedly, and the family tomb rises and falls for Claudio to mourn at. To complete the visual effect, the men change from khaki battledress to bright red military dress jackets, to white tie and tails and then to long overcoats and homburg hats, while Michelle Terry as Beatrice starts as a World War I nurse before working her way through an entire wardrobe of Twenties costumes. The overall effect is stunning, with every scene almost posed as a tableau.
In pursuit of the perfect image, of course the Director, Christopher Luscombe, takes some liberties with the play. The initial pretence that the stately home has been converted to a military hospital, with Beatrice and Hero as nurses, lasts no longer than necessary to show off the costumes and establish the link with ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (and ‘The Christmas Truce’) before they’re into other costumes and enjoying a house party – a slightly odd one too, in which characters dressed as servants dance freely with the guests. The scene where Benedick overhears the conversation staged for his benefit, is then played (brilliantly) as pure farce. Indeed the leading characters spend so much time playing for laughs that it’s a little hard to take them seriously in the tragedy of the chapel scene. And the introduction of a Christmas carol at the start of the second act seems little more than sentimentality.
Overall though the music is another strength of the production, as indeed is the standard of acting from a strong cast. I wasn’t entirely sure about the casting of Don Pedro, who seemed an unlikely rival suitor for Hero, and at one point veered dangerously close to looking and sounding like Bobby Ball playing Lee Mack’s Dad in ‘Not going out’. But Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett are excellent in the lead roles and I enjoyed David Horovitch’s performance as Leonato.
If it leads to performances like this, I’m happy for the RSC to call the play anything it wants.
Does Phil Porter’s play create an over-sentimentalised view of war? Certainly it’s the First World War as family entertainment, the RSC’s Christmas show aimed at families and recommended for children over the age of nine. But even nine year olds these days are raised on a diet of much grittier action than this. Video games, such as Call of Duty, may be aimed at slightly higher ages, but the third Hobbit film, which I saw this week, is certainly aimed at anybody over the age of 9 and it has plenty of decapitations, stabbings and generally graphic, if slightly cartoonish, violence.
Here instead we get a nurse singing Ave Maria and war reimagined as cricket, as well as the expected soldiers singing ‘Silent Night’, exchanging cigarettes and kicking around a football.
The question is prompted in part by an article by Sebastian Borger, a German journalist based in London, who finds himself bemused by the British attitude to commemorating war. The trigger for his article was the Sainsburys Christmas ad, again based on the Christmas truce, and effectively using it, with the British Legion’s endorsement, to sell carrots and Christmas puddings. But it could equally have been the poppies at the Tower of London, a magnificent and moving spectacle, but one carefully calibrated to record the number of purely British military dead and treading a fine line between commemoration and celebration. Or it could have been this production. It seems undeniable that there’s been a sentimentalised side to the way that the First World War has been represented in British culture in this centenary year.
Certainly this production has none of the hard-hitting punches of ‘Oh what a lovely war’ – a show that’s perfectly suitable for viewing by families, even for performing by children as I’ve seen in the past. There the description of a lovely war is loaded with irony – here at times it comes close to prosaic description, as the soldiers perform in an extended concert party routine and then kick a football around with their opponents. There are certainly darker moments and every time the action veers too close to celebration or sentimentality it has to be brought back to reality. The brightly lit opening game of cricket suddenly switches to a dimly lit recruiting office, an impromptu game of target practice between the opposing trenches is ended by a soldier being shot in the head, and the concert party is followed by the news that the soldiers are being sent over the top the next day. The casualties are grimly recorded as the fall of wickets on the cricket scoreboard.
But the overall mood of the play is light and if that’s accepted as appropriate, it’s beautifully done. The idea of basing the story around Bruce Bairnsfather, one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the First World War, and a local Stratford man, works really well, and there are good performances from both Joseph Kloska as Bairnsfather and Gerard Horan as Old Bill, his most famous character brought to life. Unfortunately the scenes set in a military hospital work much less well. Were they intended as a counterpoint to the grimness of the trenches, or more cynically just as a way to create some female parts in the production, particularly as it is played by largely the same group of actors as are currently playing two other productions with stronger female parts? Either way they feel forced and the arguments between a nurse and a matron feel artificial, set up to create an unrealistic parallel with the truce being played out by the men.
Whatever my doubts about the sentimentality and the structure of the play, I have to say that it was wonderful entertainment, and I guess that was its main aim. There are one or two deeper moments, as when Bairnsfather initially refuses to shake the hand of his German counterpart, prompting a reflection on how little difference there really is between the sides and between the ordinary soldiers, or when he tackles his commanding officer who insists on curtailing the truce, but these are exceptions. This is not a play about the futility of war, or one that draws any meaningful parallels with modern wars (anyone for a Christmas kickabout with Islamic State?). It’s just a very entertaining family show for Christmas. If that involves lots of carols and a thick layer of sentimentality, well that’s OK. There’ll be plenty of harder reality in the New Year.
Another gloriously enjoyable evening at the RSC in Stratford. Shakespeare’s setting of Love’s Labour’s Lost in a court in Navarre, has been moved to a country house in England in the period just before the First World War. Inevitably that brings Downton Abbey to mind, but the influences on this production are much wider than that. There’s certainly a bit of Brideshead Revisited and more than a touch of My Fair Lady. The play within a play in the second act is almost Gilbert and Sullivan, the policeman arriving at the country house is Agatha Christie-ish (as is the vicar),and the gardener Costard seems to be closely modelled on Compo from Last of the Summer Wine. The ending in a big musical number even seems to be have a tinge of Les Miserables. But out of these varied influences, the Director Christopher Luscombe and his team have created something special.
The play is beautifully designed by Simon Higlett, with a wonderful set closely based on Charlecote Park, close to Stratford. The interior of the house slides back to convert into an exterior bowling lawn, and a rooftop setting rises from below. The costumes are a delight, and looking down on the set from the side of the upper balcony, it’s clear that the positioning of the actors in every scene has been carefully thought through from a design perspective as well as a dramatic one. The music by Nigel Hess adds greatly to the enjoyment, both in set piece songs and dances and in occasional incidental music, although the musicians are mostly hidden away.
The cast too is uniformly impressive, from Edward Bennett and Michele Terry as Berowne and Rosaline, through to John Hodgkinson and Peter McGovern as Don Armado and Moth. The rooftop scene where the four men catch each other out writing poems to their loves works wonderfully, the Russian dance in the Second Act is a riot, as is the performance of the Nine Worthies, and the conclusion, where the men, having been told they must wait a year, then re-appear in World War I uniform and march off, made perfect sense and added real poignancy.
The RSC is pairing the play with Much Ado about Nothing, rebadged as Love’s Labour’s Won and set after World War I with the same cast. If it’s anything like as good as this, it will be well worth the trip.
Henry IV Part I, as directed by Gregory Doran at Stratford is a riot. The production is visually stunning, the lines are beautifully and clearly spoken, the cast is dominated by Anthony Sher as Falstaff, but is superb throughout, and it’s overall a first class theatrical experience. Part II shares many of those same features, but created far less of an impression on me. The comic invention that provided a balance to the fast moving action and the weighty historical themes in Part I, seemed to be dragged out interminably in Part II. Having never seen, or even read, either play before, it seems presumptuous to criticise Shakespeare for this and it’s hard to fault the RSC production, but still that was how it felt to me.
Sher’s Falstaff moves slowly and talks slowly but his comic timing is brilliant, as he comes up with more and more far-reached explanations for his cowardice and sloth. I loved the mock trial scene in the tavern where Falstaff first acts out the king and then Prince Hal, and his vain attempts to rise from his back on the battlefield were comedy gold. As a reveller in the tavern he was totally convincing, although the idea of him being allowed anywhere near a battlefield was absurd. It’s hard at times to take the battle scenes seriously, when Falstaff is wandering in and out of the action, trundling a little cart behind him like a toddler, and allegedly leading a ragtag company of 150 men.
If Falstaff dominates the stage, there are still great parts for Hotspur, Prince Hal and the King, and fine performances by Trevor White, Alex Hassell and Jasper Britton. Hotspur is portrayed as rash and impetuous in the extreme, so that it’s not hard to imagine him a liability as a military commander, but harder to understand why King Henry would see him as a model for his own son.
Overall though I loved the first play, and wasn’t quite sure what went wrong between it and the second one. Perhaps nothing except the curse of all sequels, that they try too hard to reprise the bits that seemed to go so well in the first. But the tavern scenes in Part II don’t have the freshness they had in the first part, and there’s less action to fill the play out and move it on. The waiter being frantically pulled in all directions provided some of the best moments in Part I, but by Part II he’s just dashing across the stage shouting ‘Anon’ in the search for a cheap laugh. And the scenes in Gloucestershire where Falstaff goes to recruit soldiers and finds only cripples and simpletons just left you with an uncomfortable feeling of mocking the afflicted. Still the play gets it together more for the end when Hal seizes the crown too soon and in quite a moving scene, has to backpedal in front of his father. Then having finally inherited the crown, he perhaps inevitably, but chillingly, renounces Falstaff, along with his old life.