Henry IV part 1 – July 2007

2/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 31st July 2007

This needs work, but as we were seeing only the fourth performance, that’s not surprising. The press night isn’t for a couple of weeks, and we’re due to see it again in November, so I’ll be interested to see how much it’s come on by then. There’s certainly enough entertaining stuff to hope this will be worked up into a very good production.

The main problem is the unevenness. There’s a lot of roaring and quick-paced dialogue, making it hard to follow what’s going on, interspersed with some slower, static sections, which I felt were a bit dull at times. Falstaff in particular hardly moved in a couple of scenes. I appreciate that as a character he’s not keen on unnecessary movement (unlike Big Brother’s Helen, he probably doesn’t care for blinking), but as a stage performance it drags the energy right down, and makes it harder to tune in to the faster-paced scenes following. Occasionally the onlookers stood in rows at the back, as in the tavern scenes, and it seemed so false. Hopefully that will all be tightened up.

Having said that, I started to enjoy the production during the robbery scene, when Falstaff puts on his disguise – a false nose and moustache! It’s so important that such a dissolute character has at least one semi-redeeming feature, and with Falstaff it’s usually his love of life and his sense of humour. I hope they emphasise these more as they develop the performances.

Hal took a bit of getting used to. He seemed very surly at first, lying in bed with Falstaff, and it was hard to see why he was spending time with him. It was also hard for the people behind us to hear, and the other problem with the static staging was that it kept the characters further back than was acoustically helpful.  Hal did develop a bit into the honourable prince role, but as I couldn’t make out much in the expressions, I possibly lost some of the detail. The fight scene with Percy looked a little shaky still, but practice will take care of that.

Hotspur himself was the usual firebrand, but he lacked definition in his speech, so that we lost most of the lovely comedy when he constantly drowns out his uncle, Worcester. In a few scenes he was fine, and the lines came across very clearly – his explanation of Henry’s faults and an earlier scene back home just before he heads off for Wales – but mostly it was a jumble, though not through lack of volume. His scene with Glendower just lacks a little oomph – we need to see more of Glendower’s arrogance and pride about his birth, to set off Hotspur’s total lack of social skills in denouncing the significance of the trembling ground. I think it’s important to see how incompatible Henry’s opponents are, to fully appreciate their eventual destruction and Henry’s unifying effect (which is sadly lost a couple of generations later).

King Henry’s performance was very interesting. At the start, I noticed a reprise of some of the work done in The Pilate Workshop, where Pilate washes his hands at a table covered in a white cloth. He uses a basin, with a jug beside it. I’m not sure if the candlesticks were also there, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As Clive Wood played Pilate, perhaps he suggested it to Michael Boyd? Anyway, there’s a biblical reference just afterwards, as Henry begins to speak, so the symbolical washing of hands fits very well, emphasising the guilt and the political concerns that Henry has at this point, having provoked Richard’s death, if not directly caused it. His performance continued strongly throughout, and looks like it could provide the strong bedrock for the whole production to flourish. I particularly liked his references to Hal showing himself too much to the public, as Richard had, which was supported by the choice of costumes. Henry is still in solid black, while Hal sports a more cheerful off-white, with hints of the flounces and ruffs of Richard’s over-the-top drag act. (I mean that in the nicest possible way!) It also made me wonder what’s going on, as in Richard II it’s Bolingbroke who seems to court the public, but perhaps it simply indicates the newspeak of the new court – reality is as he says it is.

Falstaff (David Warner) took a while to get going. Perhaps it’s the static staging as mentioned before, perhaps it’s just taking a while for the character to click, but there are glimpses of how good this could be. His story of how 2/4/7/9/82 (or whatever) men attacked him, was very entertaining, and benefited from good reactions from the onlookers, especially Hal and Poins, of course. In fact, the lack of reactions from others on stage was a definite weakness throughout the production, which I hope will be addressed. I’m realising what a difference it makes to my interest in a speech if the other actors don’t look too involved in it themselves. This was particularly true with the Hotspur ranting mentioned earlier – a lot of the comedy I’ve seen before tends to come from his father and uncle’s reactions to his over-the-top tirades. Falstaff’s dislike of honour came across very well, too, although it took a while to get going. His “killing” of Hotspur certainly had the comedy, but I feel there’s more to come with this situation yet.

I liked the way the King’s men came on for the battle of Shrewsbury, backlit in the central doorway, moving slowly in unison, with slow-motion sword play. I spotted they all had crowns on, though not straightaway, and this points up the fact that Henry has several doppelgangers in his army, which the Douglas decides to kill off one by one. He does actually come across the real king, and I think he’s the one who refers to him as a counterfeit king (?). I felt this was a very apt line, as Henry has usurped the crown, and that’s what’s triggered all the coming bloodshed, and given Will so much to write about. I really got a sense of that tonight; that once Richard was deposed, never mind killed, the crown was up for grabs, and with Edward III’s proficiency at providing heirs, it would take a long time to work through all the options. There’s a great sense of the future reaching back through time and the past reaching forward through time with this cycle, and I’m enjoying seeing pre-echoes as well as post-echoes in all the plays.

The ending sets us up nicely for part 2. All the dangling ropes from the battle scenes were tied up into nooses, again reminding us that there will be deaths now the battle is won, but also foreshadowing more deaths from future battles. Then we see Henry’s remaining opponents lined up in the tower’s gallery, while Henry and his followers are ranged below them. As the lights go down, you just know there’s trouble to come.

There was a fair bit of coughing during the performance, which I found distracting occasionally. I was also aware of the lighting a couple of times during the battle scenes. When Hotspur dies, the bright white light that had bathed the stage went out, leaving it rather starkly lit, and I found it rather unwelcoming and distancing. Other than that, I only noticed the lighting when it was effective, such as at the start of the battle.

Steve saw an analogy with pre-season matches, where the players can be a bit ropy till they get their touch back. I predict promotion this season, based on this friendly, but they will need to spend some time on their set pieces.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – July 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 30th July 2007

This could take a while. It was a great production, and some great performances. Well, actually all the cast were great, and I liked lots about the staging and ideas and echoes of earlier/later themes. What’s coming out of this year’s work is the element of time – plays written earlier which are later chronologically, and the echoes backwards and forwards.

Before each of these plays, we were treated to the usual announcement about switching off mobile phones, etc. A different actor came on each night, and there were some entertaining variations on the theme. Tonight’s announcemen was pretty straightforward, although he did advise us not to switch off pacemakers!

The start of the play was good. The other characters, led by Bagot, all came on in stately procession, moving slowly, and performing some kind of stately dance, with lots of bowing and courtesies, while Richard II walked on through the auditorium, accepting all the bowing and scraping as nothing less than his due. Jonathan Slinger was done up as Elizabeth I – effectively Queen Richard II. He played the part as very effeminate, very wimpish (I could understand why some of the hetero lords wanted rid of him) and very immature. I was thinking it might be difficult to move from there to Richard’s later awareness of the superficiality of it all, but he handled that very well, with the gradual stripping away of his finery underlining the changes. There was still an element of petulance in his telling Percy that his cosy relationship with Henry IV wouldn’t last, but his desperate understanding of his situation in his prison cell was very moving. I became aware of how in Shakespeare’s time, not having decent TV, they might spend time comparing and contrasting situations, just for fun, and Richard’s forcing of the issue, then coming up with a very good metaphor for humanity and its foibles, worked very well.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke complimented the King at the opening to the dispute scene, and I felt Mowbray was trying to outdo Bolingbroke, reminiscent of the opening of King Lear. I couldn’t see Richard’s responses to much of the Bolingbroke/Mowbray dispute, but for once I was really sad to see him break up the fight. They’d set up two jousting horses (suspended saddles) and it looked like we might have some fun, but then Richard threw his baton at a lady in the front row and it was all over. [Turns out the jousting is specifically referenced in Henry IV part 2, so although cumbersome I suspect this may stay.]

Tonight we had a very good John of Gaunt pre-death scene. He came across as really ill, and it was all he could do to get his lines out. Not too surprising he didn’t last much longer. Richard was wonderfully temperamental – at first consoling, then snappy, then pious, then practical about nicking his dead uncle’s dosh and never mind the rightful heir.

There was some unexpected and presumably unwelcome audience participation tonight during the gardeners’ scene. The head gardener was John of Gaunt, still wearing the same clothes, so this was similar to when the dead bodies were recycled in the Henry VI trilogy. He sprayed some folk off to our right with water (he was carrying a hose) and Chuk Iwuji, as the other gardener, looked a bit too keen to use his shears. No dancing nun this time, sadly, but still a good scene overall, with some telling points made about the importance of managing the country well (one of Will’s hobby horses, that).

With Bolingbroke’s return, the difference between him and Richard is emphasised by his much plainer dress sense, and his refusal to be seduced by flattery. When Percy tried to brown-nose Henry about how his wonderful company made the long journey shorter, Henry just ignored him, and I fancied there was a slight look of distaste in his expression. He also communicates more directly and is far more business-like in his dealings. When he meets the Duke of York, tasked with protecting the realm while Richard is away, he gets a good telling off from his uncle for coming back, but then the Duke admits that he can’t do anything to stop him, so invites him in for dinner. I haven’t seen the character played as so weak before. He’s also in much more of a dither when trying to handle the crisis earlier, more so than I’ve seen before.

In the deposition scene, the passing of the crown was fine, with just enough of a lingering feel to it. If anything, Richard was more sparky than earlier, standing up for himself more now there’s nothing more to lose. He tore off his wig and wiped off his makeup as he deposes himself. I didn’t see that bit clearly, but then he has his own face as he looks in the mirror, which was a safety mirror so it didn’t shatter when he smashed it down. Later, for the farewell scene with his wife, there was some kind of dust raining down on his head for a long time – what was it? [sand, we discovered] I wondered how he could breathe and speak his lines. It did suggest a washing off of the anointing, and his transformation into a penitent.

During the second challenge scene, the vast number of gauntlets was really funny. It’s interesting that after accusing Mowbray, Henry now seems to be investigating what actually happened – or is it just a ploy to get rid of a political opponent? What is going on here?

For the Aumerle pardoning scene, it’s the first time I’ve seen other people come on stage with the Duke of York. Percy keeps the door shut on the Duchess, but you can’t keep Maureen Beattie off stage for long. (More than his life’s worth!) Richard Cordery as the Duke of York was glowering magnificently as his wife pleads for her son’s life. Even before he fell to his knees to plead against the pardon, he was well unhappy, and it showed.

Bagot took the role of murderer this time. He came down playing the piano, with a mask on. [Apparently the harness he had to wear meant a lot of talcum powder was used!] Chuk Iwuji played the groom, and there were three other knights with masks who came to kill the king, but he managed to fight them off, with Bagot killing him in the end. Richard’s dead body was dragged off by an arm and a leg, creating a swathe of blood on the stage – reminiscent of the pool of gore in the original Henry VI part 3. Lots of traitors’ heads were brought on in bags for the final scene and dumped in front of Henry, who was sitting on the steps which Richard stood on earlier.

Chuk Iwuji wafted around doing various messenger jobs, having started off as Thomas of Woodstock’s dead body, and this casting emphasised the haunting aspects of the play. Katy Stephens as the Duchess of Gloucester (still married to Chuk, I see) also pre-echoed the revenge theme with her tirade against her husband’s death.

Other things to mention: Richard had a lot of costume changes, reflecting both his descent from power and the opulence he lives in initially. The music was lovely, with some haunting singing which set up a good atmosphere for this staging. There was a strange light bulb sculpture – what was that for? It was interesting, but I’m not clear about its purpose.

I couldn’t possibly get down all my impressions of this performance, as there was so much detail, and so much I liked. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again, and also seeing the way this play sets up the rest of the history cycle in these productions.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me