One of Shakespeare’s greatest comic creations is Sir John Falstaff. This fat, drunken, workshy knight is all a nobleman shouldn’t be, and yet he makes this appealing rather than shabby. The trouble is that Falstaff’s finest appearances aren’t in comedies, but in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. He rollicks his way through bloody rebellions which sunder England and threaten the throne. This can pose a problem for directors.
In Henry IV part 1, Falstaff is a kind of alternative father to Hal, the young Prince of Wales (later Henry V). There’s thus a ready-made contrast with Hal’s real father, King Henry IV, the grim politician who faces revolt from his nobles and meets them in battle. It makes a telling contrast: the court versus the tavern. Usually, at least. In the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, though, it’s more problematic.
Alan Strachan directs as much comedy as he can into the play, even among the rebels as Owen Glendower talks mystical rot and Hotspur and his wife engage in loving knockabout – a novel touch. But he can’t get round the fact that this simply isn’t one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but a history play with its politics, battles and a nation at risk. It’s not what you expect on a summer evening in this pleasant outdoor venue.
The pivot of the play is Prince Hal, as he transforms from a young roisterer into the heir his father has so keenly desired: brave, chivalrous and true. Jordan Frieda has a Prince William-like poster-boy appeal, but always seems to be trying a bit too hard, first to be dissolute and then to acquire gravitas. Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff hits the right note of rumpled sardonicism, constantly lying yet honest in himself.
Christopher Godwin’s King Henry is gaunt and forbidding, occasionally showing us the man beneath the crown. As the rebellious Hotspur, Keith Dunphy strikes an unusual note: someone beside me asked, “Is he meant to be autistic?” In another venue, this could make for an interesting, thoughtful production. However, no offence meant, but Regent’s Park doesn’t do thoughtful very well; here, it feels a little out of kilter.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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