Henry IV part 1 – January 2008

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th January 2008

This was a huge improvement on the first performance we saw, way back in August last year. At that time, the production seemed terribly under-rehearsed and unsure of itself. Now it’s come together wonderfully, to give us a really good look at this “roaring” play.

The main improvement is in the performance of Hal himself (Geoffrey Streatfeild). From his earlier, rather stiff performance, he’s blossomed into a lively, energetic prince, full of expression and fun, enjoying the tricks he and Poins get up to, and holding his own in banter with Falstaff. He also shows more of the king to be, albeit in small glimpses. When swearing to the king that he would do great deeds which would shine so bright as to obscure his murky past, he was sincere, but it was still bravado – he hasn’t done any of it yet. It was noticeable how the king’s attitude changed as Harry showed his worth on the battlefield; he obviously realised he had been mistaken.

The dialogue with Falstaff came off remarkably clearly. I think the main problem I have with the language in this play is the archaic terms, which make it difficult to follow. It’s easier when the nobles are discussing war plans, as they tend not to get too highfalutin – it’s a practical business, warfare, at least under this regime. But in the playful exchanges down Eastcheap way, the language can stretch and scratch its balls, so to speak, and it often does.

The playfulness between Hal and Falstaff also came across more tonight. I liked the way Hal impersonates his father’s posture when playing him, and his delivery of “I do, I will” gave me the impression of the boy growing up into the man, and seeing what he will have to become. Mistress Quickly’s reactions to Falstaff’s portrayal of the king seemed stronger; she was really enjoying herself tonight. In general, David Warner’s performance as Falstaff seemed more assured. I expect this was partly because Hal himself was giving him more to work with.

The scene with Hotspur ranting and raving went a little better tonight. There’s still too little reaction from his father and uncle though. After a lifetime of listening to the lad shout the odds at every opportunity, you’d think they’d be a bit tired of it by now, but these two were pretty stoic about it all, except when Hotspur’s yelling after the king. I’ve seen it done with much more reaction, and as well as being funnier, it allows the other characters to breathe a bit, too.

I enjoyed the “anon, anon” sketch last time. I could see what Hal was trying to do – get Poor Francis, the drawer, to reply “anon, anon” to everything he says. It’s a pretty shabby trick, but then nobles in Shakespeare’s play don’t always act nobly. The timing didn’t work quite so well tonight, I felt.

The fight between Hal and Hotspur was interesting. Hotspur is obviously the odds-on favourite, with his wealth of experience at killing people, but Hal’s learned some sneaky tricks during his time at Eastcheap, and puts them to good use here. He actually bites Hotspur at a crucial moment, which floors him, literally, and then Hal can finish him off. Except that this Hotspur refuses to be killed. Terminator-like, he heaves himself across the stage, still trying to kill his opponent, but eventually the red eyes flicker and die, as it were, and Hotspur is finally dead. Not that that will settle things. Falstaff’s quick to claim the glory, and here Hal is surprisingly willing to let him, and even seems glad about it. It’s surprising because one of Hal’s reasons for playing the dissolute prince-about-town was to gain all the greater glory when he shows his true colours. I would have thought he’d be at least a little miffed that Falstaff steals his thunder.

For the robbery scene, the almost compulsory rope work was involved, and I liked Bardolph’s interpolations of “shit” and “bollocks” when he couldn’t get up the ropes to get away. I’m sure Will would have approved.

Before the battle, I noticed for the first time that Hotspur’s arguments to his wavering colleagues are identical to those that Hal will use later before the battle of Agincourt. The fewer soldiers, the greater the glory. With Hotspur, I get the impression he’s just saying it for himself, as a natural expression of his belligerent nature. With Hal, it becomes a tremendously stirring speech, designed to rouse his men for battle. This was one of the many ways I see these two characters being contrasted and compared throughout these plays. Both give their fathers concern, though for different reasons. Both have similar attitudes to war and power, and in many ways they could have been great friends. But their respective positions on either side of a power divide make that impossible. It’s similar to the way the king and Falstaff are contrasted as Hal’s two ‘fathers’. It’s debatable how much Hal takes after either of them in the end, although he certainly learns all he can from each.

Another change was that the audience on the far side of the stage was encouraged to stand up to become the “pressed men” referred to in the text. Mildly amusing, perhaps, but I’m not sure how much that sort of thing can be inflicted on an audience. Did they really have to stand up, or could they just have been indicated by the actors? Anyway, it shows this cast are more comfortable working with the audience and playing off them than ever before.

Finally, I really appreciated the diversity of language in this play, after the total verse of Richard II. It made the whole piece seem more alive. And why ‘roaring’? Well, Hotspur roars, Falstaff roars, King Henry roars, Hal roars (occasionally), even Mistress Quickly roars (with laughter). There’s so much roaring in this production that any escaped lions from Dudley zoo would have felt quite at home. As it was, I’m glad there weren’t any lions; it made the whole experience much more enjoyable.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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