Henry IV part 1 – May 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th May 2014

This is a rather clunky production at the moment, but there’s potential for improvement. We have some other visits planned for later in the year, so hopefully we’ll enjoy seeing the performances come on.

That’s assuming we can see anything, of course. The set was wreathed in gloom before the start, though I could make out some of the details. The pizza-wedges (sections of auditorium in the balconies either of the stage) had been taken out and larger balconies put in. That whole area was made of wood, with a back wall of wooden slats which looked the worse for wear; the effect was very reminiscent of the Swan. From time to time the rear wall separated so that we could see through to the back, and there was a slanting roof above the rear of the stage. For the start a very large crucifix was suspended near the back of the thrust, and seven lamps hung in a wide circle round the centre of the stage. The floor was wooden, and there were steps at the front of the stage – I wondered if they would be used in part 2 when the newly crowned Henry V entered the stage. Also near the front was a prie-dieu holding the crown and a book, presumably a Bible.

There were a few drumbeats before the start – don’t know if they were part of the plan or just the musicians taking their places. A stained-glass window effect shone onto the stage to create the church-like location – appropriate for a repentant king – and the characters entered in a candle-lit procession accompanied by some deep-voiced religious chanting. With a row of men in what looked like ermine-trimmed robes looking on, King Henry knelt and then prostrated himself before rising and putting on the crown. As this was happening, we caught a brief glimpse of Richard II’s ghost on the right hand balcony as he had appeared in Greg’s earlier production – so much for not linking the plays together!

Henry started off his speech looking stressed and worried, but became more relaxed as it went on. When it came to the stirring stuff about going to the Holy Land to free it from the infidel – you know the sort of thing – he threw back his cloak to reveal the chain mail underneath, an action which could have been laughable but was handled well by Jasper Britton, always a safe pair of hands. Another link to the cycle (as we really must start calling it) was the retention of several of the actors from the earlier play. At this point, it was Youssef Kerkour as Westmoreland who came on with the bad news about Mortimer’s rebellion, and so the men had to put their toys away and come in for their tea.

A huge bed was wheeled on for the next scene, and from the movements and sounds it was clear that sex was going on under the vast acreage of bedclothes. Eventually a woman emerged, then another, and finally Hal himself, clad only in boxers. This was mildly entertaining, but Falstaff got a bigger laugh when he emerged from yet another corner of the bed – told you it was huge! There was a lot of physical horseplay between Hal and Falstaff, and it seemed clear that there was a level of fondness and intimacy in their relationship. Poins came in and set up the Gadshill trick, and after both Falstaff and Poins had left, Hal’s soliloquy suggested that he was keen to have the glory of his own redemption.

Northumberland was another carry-over from Richard II, and although I felt this Hotspur was a bit too old for the part, the relationship between this father and son was also clearly defined. Not so much rough and tumble as rough and rougher! Hotspur was a mouthy brat, and when the king had finally left, ordering Hotspur to surrender his prisoners, he carried on ranting till his father took him by the ear and pinned him to the floor. I think the lines were “Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool…” followed immediately by Hotspur’s chastened “Good uncle, tell your tale; I have done” as he rubbed his sore ear. The political machinations came across very well, although I did wonder why the Percys hadn’t thought of Mortimer’s claim to the throne before they helped Bolingbroke to claim it. Bit late now.

The back wall split for the first time for the Gadshill scene, and we noticed a strange white light on it, underneath what we assumed was a full moon. It was a bit distracting at first, and we came to the conclusion that it was probably a mistake rather than some weird unintelligible symbol. The innocuous travellers were soon frightened off by Falstaff and his crew; although two of the men were tied up, they still managed to get away. Hal and Poins snuck up behind the victorious gang disguised by a couple of hoods and using branches as camouflage. They easily scared the group off, although Falstaff was naturally a little slower than the others when it came to leaving the stage.

Hotspur had a slapping fight with his wife, and later he threw her on the ground; their relationship was going nowhere fast. He was permanently angry, and while this certainly made for a contrast with Hal’s situation, I didn’t feel they were getting as much out of the Hotspur scenes as they could have. We learned from one of the many talks we go to that Trevor White who played Hotspur had been interested in the possibility that his character suffered from a degree of autism. I can see the attractiveness of the idea, but I’m not convinced it provides as good a portrayal as we’ve seen before. However, this is still relatively early in the run, which goes on till September, so perhaps things will have improved next time we see it.

Off to Eastcheap, where the tavern was quickly set up. The platform slid forward with a table and stools, on the wider stage there was a table front right with stools and another back left, while the trapdoor front right was open most of the time and well used by the servants to access the supply of liquor. I felt the trick with Francis didn’t quite work tonight. Mind you, I’ve only seen it done well once, where the “anon, anon, sir” came as the response to Hal’s questions, a bit like the ‘answering the question before’ Mastermind sketch from The Two Ronnies. Their timing seemed to be a bit off tonight; this may come on for practice.

Hal put the stolen chest containing the money on the table and sat on it when Falstaff arrived. Falstaff’s escalation of the enemy numbers was good fun, and in the slanging match that followed, Hal counted Falstaff’s insults on his fingers. It was good the way the rest of the tavern crowd responded to the banter and became involved. The court play-acting was OK, though I wasn’t sure what was going on when Hal came to the line “I do; I will”. When the sheriff came knocking at the door looking for Sir John, Hal told him to hide, then offered the chest to someone in the audience to try and hide that as well, but ended up sitting on it instead at the front of the stage (I think). A little extra piece had been inserted here as we soon realised – the Lord Chief Justice was also with the sheriff, and when Bardolph was arrested and about to be carried off, Hal intervened to get him set free. There was an altercation which led to Hal slapping the Lord Chief Justice, something referred to in the next play but not usually seen on stage.  It was certainly a shock to see it, despite our knowledge of the end of part 2, and it felt OK to have included it.

When the officers of the law had left, Hal ordered Peto to search Falstaff’s pockets; he was snoring behind a curtain. Falstaff’s dietary choices were clearly unbalanced – definitely not getting his five-a-day – and as Hal left the stage we could see Peto putting on a ring. Interval.

We could tell we were in Wales after the interval because of the harp sitting by a chair back right. That was standing on a large white rug and there were braziers blazing away on either side of the rear stage and a large fire bowl on the left. When Glendower came on he had the map draped round his shoulders, which raised a laugh when he said “here it is”. Again Hotspur let his mouth get the better of him – he couldn’t stop himself arguing with his host over the mystical signs which showed how important a man Glendower was. Despite the way people talk about him, I was finding it hard to see Hotspur as “noble”. Valiant, certainly, but who would willingly spend time with the man? Hal would be much more fun, never mind Falstaff. Despite this, the group finally got down to business and split the country between them. Might have been wise to actually win their battles first, of course. The Welsh song was very nice, and I notice from the text that the details were inconveniently left out of the script – “Here the lady sings a Welsh song” is all we get. Handy in some ways, frustrating in others.

Back at court, Henry was kneeling on the prie-dieu beneath the crucifix when Hal arrived. During their ‘conversation’, Henry grabbed Hal by the ear and pushed him towards the prie-dieu, an echo of Northumberland’s treatment of Hotspur. Despite this, there seemed to be a basically good relationship between father and son.

Returning to the tavern, Falstaff was collecting the dregs from the used cups that were lying about and drinking them – yuck. Bardolph was about to sing at Sir John’s request – “sing me a bawdy song, make me merry” – but Sir John kept talking, which made us laugh. Now I’ve often complained about the amount of coughing during a performance – the latter part of this scene had more than its fair share, but it was the characters on stage who were doing it all. At each mention of Mistress Quickly’s “husband” – and there are quite a few – the men present would cough discreetly as if they doubted the validity of the relationship. It was a bit distracting, though I think I got the gist of the argument between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly regarding his accusation of theft and her demands for the money which he owed her.

The news of Northumberland’s ‘illness’ came as a crushing blow to the rebels, but Hotspur managed to spin it so they could carry on fighting; strangely enough he used an argument which foreshadows the future Henry V’s pre-Agincourt pep talk.

Falstaff and Bardolph came on pulling a small cart. While Bardolph went off to refill Falstaff’s bottle with booze – it was a large green bottle which raised a laugh – Falstaff sat on a stool and prepared to eat a whole chicken; just a light snack then. In the background we could see a string of miserable specimens straggling across the back of the stage, and from Falstaff’s referring to them as he talked about his soldiers we could see that he had been up to his usual tricks when it came to recruitment. Hal was shocked when he came on and realised this was Falstaff’s idea of suitable men – the fun side of that relationship was definitely at an end.

The pre-battle parleys were the next scenes, and I found it hard to follow all the dialogue for this bit. The general trend was clear though, and after a short comic interlude where Falstaff gave his views on the value of “honour”, the two sides soon started fighting each other. One King Henry look-a-like was killed, and then the real king was found by the Douglas. He had the king down and was about to deliver the killer blow but Hal ran on swiftly and protected his father after which the Douglas, don’t know why, simply took up his weapon and walked off. Weird.

Finally we came to the confrontation between the two young Harrys – Percy and the Prince of Wales. Hal seemed a bit raw at this fighting lark, and despite doing his best, Percy had him down and took his sword. There was a rush of soldiers and then Hal was rearmed and returned to the fight. Suddenly he was a better swordsman and killed Hotspur! Not convincing.

During the rushing of the soldiers earlier, Falstaff took up a prone position at the back of the stage, where Hal spotted his ‘corpse’ after saying a few words over Hotspur’s dead body. When Hal left the stage, Falstaff miraculously ‘revived’, and gave us a few laughs as he tried to get up, rolling this way and that way until he managed to raise himself enough to get off the floor. Hal was naturally shocked to find Falstaff still alive, and also by his claim to have killed Hotspur – the lies just keep on coming. The battle won, there was just a bit of tidying up to do, and another map was produced as the king gave his instructions to his various commanders. With the closing lines, the lights went out, and they took their bows to warm applause.

The main problem I had with this performance was the lack of clarity in the relationships which are so central to the story. The actions were clear enough, but there was little depth in the way the characters responded to each other which left me feeling a bit detached and uninvolved. Hal in particular was an enigma, and as he is the central character, for all that the play is named after his father, that held the whole performance back. I’m aware that Alex Hassell likes to keep his performances spur-of-the-moment rather than pre-deciding everything, but that does have its disadvantages. Some nights he may get it ‘right’ and the experience can be amazing, but on other occasions, if he’s off-track, the whole thing flops. Also, I suspect this rampant experimentation may mean that it takes him longer to get his act together, especially with such a major role as this. Still, there were glimmers of good things here and there, so I’ll be interested to see how the production comes on for another couple of months’ practice.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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