THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY at THE BARBICAN THEATRE.
Antony Sher’s Falstaff rules the roost in these plays that follow a king in decline, and a prince choosing honour over the ale house.
Henry IV may give his name to these plays, but his glory-days are long gone before the action even begins.
Gregory Doran’s powerful productions, which have transferred to the Barbican from Stratford, open with the shadowy, white-gowned spirit of Richard II casting an uneasy pall of guilt over Henry’s enjoyment of his crown.
And he can’t even look confidently to the future, as he’s saddled with a renegade son and heir who’s not a patch on his braver, manlier and altogether more successful warrior-cousin, Harry Hotspur.
It’s hard to blame the king for publicly wishing the boys had been swapped in their cradles, as young Prince Hal’s bawdy-house revelling when rebellion and war are threatened could scarcely be worse timed.
Jasper Britton brings a brooding, regal presence to King Henry, though failing health and a falling-away of allies are already lining up to threaten his throne. His impotent fury with his son is later tempered by the grace and reason he shows in his message to Hotspur and the rebels, but Britton’s finest scenes come with the king’s slow decline in Part II, as he suffers the misery of insomnia, and his horrified realisation – ‘Is he so hasty?’ – that his son has been rather previous and stolen away the crown during his death-like sleep.
The bitter reproaches of a disappointed father who fears his son never loved him at all are a heartbreaking reminder of how the young can snap at the heels of the old, and even Hal is shamed into protestations of filial love.
Alex Hassell is a superbly handsome and dashing Prince Hal, with a physique that starkly demonstrates the difference between youth and age as Falstaff totters around him.Young men tend to think and talk fast, and Hassell’s performance reflects that, though he also races through some of his finest speeches – including the death of Hotspur and the rejection of Falstaff – where a more nuanced delivery might have allowed us a more emotional response.
But if Hal is cool and reflective enough to turn from his oldest friends, it’s scarcely surprising, knowing as he must that no one loves him without an expectation of a return. Even his closest friend Poynes is secretly hoping his sister is in with a chance of marrying the prince and boosting the family fortunes.
There is great ensemble playing throughout both these plays. Trevor White bursts with energy and martial zeal as the warrior Hotspur, stalking the halls of power but still not above getting a clip round the ear from uncle Worcester. Antony Byrne is an outstanding performer, both as embittered plotter Worcester in Part I, and as the uncontrollable, steam-punk style Pistol in Part II. Paola Dionisotti channels her inner Dot Cotton with the put-upon Mistress Quickly, and Jennifer Kirby is a down-to-earth and demanding Lady Percy, whose passion for her husband is fiery enough even for a Hotspur.
But without doubt, both shows belong to Antony Sher’s Sir John Falstaff. He is entirely magnificent as the fat, sly, dishonourable knight who can cunningly wriggle his way out of any impossible situation, from debt to arrest – even faking his own death – until a crown comes between him and his Hal.
Sher creates an achey, weighty and thoroughly dirty physical presence for Sir John. He’s a man who is – of necessity – never in a hurry, and Sher’s measured mastery of the verbal and physical comedy sewn into every scene lifts the entire production. His recollections of the youthful bedroom antics of his old companion Justice Shallow (the terrific Oliver Ford Davies) should be on the syllabus for drama schools and aspiring comedians alike.
Yet he also creates moments of purest emotion in Falstaff’s farewell to lover Doll Tearsheet, played with great spirit by Nia Gwynne. And his clinging to hope after the new King Henry V publicly spurns him is a desperately sad picture of an ill-spent life coming to an end.
Gregory Doran’s direction captures all the restless insecurity of an age where guilt and remorse over a stolen crown spill into strife within the kingdom’s highest ranks and its lowest alehouses. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set, with its exposed lathe backdrop, suggests how the inner workings of the state are disintegrating, aided by excellent lighting design from Tim Mitchell, and sound by Martin Slavin.
Composer Paul Englishby’s music, played live under MD Gareth Ellis, includes some striking effects to underpin the action, like the blasts of brass that accompany each killing thrust of Hal’s weapon as he dispatches Harry Hotspur at the battle of Shrewsbury.
Part II closes with Elliot Barnes-Worrell’s enigmatic Prince John coolly anticipating Henry V’s French wars to come. It’s the last we’ll see of Falstaff, so catch him at the Barbican, while you can.
To 24 January 2015