Lyceum Theatre, Crewe/touring
Opened 26 October, 1996

Portrayals of Falstaff tend towards either a knight who has grown old in the service of his dissipated, rumbustious life style, or an old knight whose youth is preserved by it. Timothy West's fine performance, in Stephen Unwin's two-part production of Henry IV for English Touring Theatre, shows a man always conscious of his age as well as his bulk.

However, his is not so much a Falstaff who takes conspicuous joy in roistering as one who has forgotten that there is any other way to live. Lacking the energy either for amendment or serious misdeeds (even his jokes, as they fall flat, are accompanied by a Frankie Howerdian "please yourself" shrug), he has acquired a kind of spent serenity, most evident in those scenes in which his enormous porkies are exposed. He neither misses a beat nor alters his tone as he switches to another face-saving tack, but exudes a charisma throughout which makes his rascally nature seem, for that instant, the most natural and most acceptable thing in the world.

The selling point of this tour is that Prince Hal, who in his wastrel days is a surrogate son to Falstaff, is played by Samuel West. West the younger's blend of disarming foolery and a sincerity which is appealing even at its most grave renders him a natural Hal, and he scarcely disappoints. His final denial of Falstaff in Part 2 is feelingly heralded at the end of Part 1's role-playing scene in the single line, "I do, I will". In each case, West conveys regret but a settled resolution upon his royal duty.

Although author and audience alike are captivated by Falstaff, Gary Waldhorn's King Henry maintains a strong presence at the core of the, play, expertly charting the monarch's physical decline but never less than commanding even on his deathbed. Paterson Joseph turns in an admirable pair of performances: in Part 1 a flippant, tactlessly immature but nevertheless attractive Hotspur (whose fatal battlefield encounter with Hal is a touching moment of youthful comradeship), in Part 2 a Pistol who undercuts his torrents of fustian rhetoric by switching from a West Indian declamatory bellow to a plain London twang as he translates his own babblings into English. Likewise, Lucy Briers doubles as a spirited Lady Percy (almost a match for her husband Hotspur) and a Doll Tearsheet with more than a touch of Tasmanian Devil in her blood.

Unwin more or less maintains the balance between the high and low strands of action, although the rebels in Part 2 suffer from the lack of an audience-friendly "hook" such as Hotspur. The transition is palpably conveyed from King Henry's self-appointed task of unifying the land's governance to his son's keenly felt duty to unify its spirit. After so many productions of entire Shakespearean historical tetralogies, whether edited or not (even John Caird's recent BBC television Henry IV included judicious helpings of extrinsic material), it is useful to be reminded that the unadorned pair of plays can stand by themselves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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