HENRY IV Part One
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 3rd May, 2014
Gregory Doran’s production is a straightforward staging of a history play with no time-shifts or gimmicks (like dozens of giant party balloons) to make its presence felt. It works very well – a crowd-pleaser.
As the titular king, Jasper Britton gets all the serious business of the plot, being kingly and regal and war-like. It’s a creditable performance but everyone knows, including the RSC’s poster designers, that the play is really all about Falstaff. Star turn Antony Sher gives us a Sir John like a fat Fagin; we delight in his personality flaws and his questionable behaviour. He engages in bouts of ‘lad bants’ with heir apparent and man of the people, Prince Hal – the never-less-than-excellent, tall, dark and handsome Alex Hassell. Now, here is a Prince of Wales I could get behind. He and Falstaff enjoy slinging insults at each other down the pub, and indulge in a spot of role play, taking turns to be the king. It’s all jolly fun but there is a brief foreshadowing of what is to come in Part Two, when Hal will shake off his laddish behaviour on his way to becoming Henry V.
Trevor White’s Hotspur is a hothead, looking like a Johnny Rotten or a Draco Malfoy. He’s a little too shouty and jump-aroundy for my liking, so Prince Hal’s eulogy for him doesn’t quite match the behaviour we have seen. The swordfight between these two is breathtaking in its speed and forcefulness. Kudos to fight director Terry King.
Joshua Richards is a marvellously morose Bardolph, whose conk could give Rudolph’s a run for its money, and Paola Dionisotti is utterly believable as sentimental old cackler and pub landlady, Mistress Quickly.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design evokes the period in an understated way, letting the costumes and the behaviour do most of the work, aided by Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music. It all makes for a good-looking, great-sounding production, proving that the RSC doesn’t need to mess about in order to provide a superlative piece of entertainment. Fast-paced, funny and thrilling, Part One gives Part Two a lot to live up to.