HENRY IV parts 1 and 2
National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 4 May, 2005

When he took the helm at the National two years ago, Nicholas Hytner hit the ground running with a lauded Henry V.  Now heís turned to its two-part pre-decessor as it tells of how the hell-raising Prince Hal becomes the admired King Henry V, and how his getting of maturity mirrors his fatherís efforts to stop the nation fracturing in war.  But the main attraction will always be Falstaff, played now by Michael Gambon.

Gambonís a protean actor, constantly changing his form and voice during a performance, and this is no exception.  Often his fat knight has a plummy, pretend-noble splutter (so much so that the odd phrase is unintelligible), then will veer suddenly into broad London for a payoff line, like a tennis player dropping it expertly just over the net.  And the big, cynical ďhonourĒ speech in part 1 is delivered perfectly straight.

The key to Falstaff isnít that his roguery is appealing; itís that his age is passing. In part 2, we see him and Justice Shallow recall their distant youth; in part 1, his japes are a rite of passage that Hal must transcend.  Hal even calls Falstaff ďall-hallown summerĒ, meaning an Indian summer.  Thatís the spirit of Falstaff: golden, yet all but over already. Gambon hits this ambivalent note beautifully.

David Bradley is a natural as King Henry: lean, spare and ascetic, he personifies the Kingís unbending nature but also shows the concern beneath, for both his country and his eldest son.  Matthew (Spooks) MacFadyen is less successful as Hal. Heís generally (though not always) spot-on with the more noble aspects, but he just doesnít roister convincingly with Falstaff.  The disownment scene, though, crackles.

Hytnerís vision for the pair of plays doesnít really come into sharp focus.   The design is arresting, with a huge arrow of planking thrusting down off the stage, but the sense of countries, families and friendships falling apart and drawing together isnít quite there.  But Gambon is masterly, and supported by a phalanx of impressive stage names. And at a tenner a throw for most of the tickets, you could do a lot worse.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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