HENRY IV parts 1 and 2
Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 27 July, 2011
*** / ****

Peter Hall’s Bath seasons, as I have said, often discreetly investigate ideas of Englishness. The centrepiece of his company’s 2011 season is the diptych in which Shakespeare, more than in any other of his plays, does the same. These two dramas (or this one bifurcated drama) are not an exercise in flag-waving like Henry V, although of course the reform of Prince Hal when he takes the throne prefigures that other work; nor are they preoccupied with examining the weakness of the body politic under a weak king as in Richard II. Between them, parts 1 and 2 take in the entire country: the crown and the rebel faction; the court and the distinctly un-courtly; town and country; responsibility and misrule. There is not a strong, unambiguous political or social line to the plays: this is England, they say, some aspects are better than others but all are us.
King Henry himself is never less than earnest, and as part 2 progresses he becomes physically consumed by the burdens of the throne he seems to regret having seized but which he occupies conscientiously. David Yelland looks more bearish than usual, but has always had a flair for more rhetorically complex roles; here, he uses Hall’s sometimes over-dogmatic insistence on end-stopping the spoken verse exactly as the director intends, in order to increase both clarity and power of delivery. His opposite number – his son’s other father, as it were – is that great round man, Sir John Falstaff. Desmond Barrit, returning to the role he played for the RSC a decade ago, confounds expectations by not being exuberant. Much of Falstaff’s lugubriousness is parodic, to be sure, and Barrit gets full value out of this aspect, transforming his face so that it resembles that of a classics master drawn by Ronald Searle but sitting unexpectedly above a mountain of flesh in tatterdemalion costuming.
Tom Mison gives early signs of Hal’s future correction of his ways. In the play-acting scene in part 1 in which Hal plays his father and Falstaff the prince, his lengthy excoriation of the fat knight begins as an impersonation of the king, shifts into humorous playing-up to his tavern companions, then he gets carried away and careers into genuine passion, so that Falstaff’s speech of defence becomes both necessary and sincere, and Hal’s final verdict, “I do; I will [disown him]” sounds with an awkward awareness that the pretence has been broken. It is no surprise that, when he repudiates Falstaff at his coronation at the end of part 2, Barrit’s Falstaff does not for an instant doubt that he means it; Falstaff’s subsequent “I shall be sent for soon at night” is a rationalisation not for his companions, but to prevent his own sense of the world shattering.
In a company of more than 20, some doublings are especially appealing. Ben Mansfield’s Hotspur in part 1 seems to begin arguments humorously before his temper takes over; in part 2, his bombastic Pistol is in some ways a lampoon of the other role. Philip Voss is sombre as the rebel Worcester in part 1, and even a little camp as Shallow in part 2, with Robert East moving from playing Hotspur’s father Northumberland to a bouncy-yokel turn as Silence. Gregory Clarke and Mick Sands make admirably discreet use of music, sometimes at the very threshold of audibility. Part 2 has the edge, simply in terms of its Shakespearean richness; Yelland and Mison are especially fine in the scene in which Hal prematurely takes his father’s crown. But Hall has created a fine two-panel portrait of all of England.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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