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.

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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

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

Henry IV part 1 – July 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th July 2006

This was great fun. As I watched both of these plays, matinee and evening, I was reminded of Ninagawa’s comments about British actors over-analysing their parts. Here the characters fell into place, especially during the tavern scenes. Instead of Hal and Falstaff’s role-playing having to carry many complex layers of meaningful performance, it was played as more of a jolly romp, with all of the tavern regulars joining in the fun. The extra meanings were still there, but they weren’t allowed to get in the way.

Again, the different accents meant I heard many of the lines more clearly, and some for the first time. The sets were not too detailed – there was a central block which rose or dropped to different levels to create a bed, table, floor or pit, while extra tables and chairs were whisked on and off pretty briskly to create the various scenes. The costumes were quite heavy, and must have been uncomfortable in the heat. They were more medieval romantic, with lots of fur trim, which was a bit of a throwback to old-fashioned Shakespearean productions, but they did the job.

All the performances were excellent. The young man playing Prince Hal apparently had a bad cold, which accounts for his slightly strange accent and occasional loss of power. Apart from that, he had a tendency to twitch and quiver at times of emotional stress, which I felt was unnecessary, but in all other ways he portrayed the character brilliantly. Hotspur’s fiery temperament was very clear, too, along with his tendency to ride roughshod over everyone, even his allies.

The bit parts were noticeably good – a Mistress Quickly from the Bronx was well matched with Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, all of whom would have fitted right in to New York street life. The poor drawer, Francis, was also much better than average, being not so much stupid as over-eager to please. That ‘comedy’ routine has never worked for me before, but this time I realised it was a forerunner to The Two Ronnies’ wordplay sketches, with Poins getting Francis to say “Anon, anon” in response to Prince Hal’s comments. It still shows an unpleasant side to Hal’s character, but at least this time there was some point to it.

Falstaff’s stealing of Hal’s glory was underplayed here, I thought, and then I checked the text. They played it to the letter. Other productions have made more of the incident, but it’s good to see a cast standing by Will’s version and not trying to over-interpret it. The reading of Falstaff’s papers, listing his copious consumption of sack, was dropped; not sure why, unless the old English monetary references would have been too much.

We’ve decided if we ever get to Chicago, we want to visit this company and see their work again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me