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

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