After the Globe’s stunning production of this play, starring Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Hal, all subsequent productions are bound to be compared to it. This evening’s rendition, however, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at Norwich Theatre Royal, starring Antony Sher as the portly knight, and Alex Hassell as a darkly attractive Prince Hal, survives the comparison very well.
Together, these two characters (along with Paola Dionisotti’s brilliantly bustling Mistress Quickly) form the heart of the play, centring around the tavern in Eastcheap that sees such comic scenes as Falstaff’s ridiculous and multiplying lies about his ambush, and the ‘practice an answer’ exchange between the heir apparent and the aforementioned and loveable ‘white bearded Satan’. Sher carries off the role of the groggily-voiced yet vivaciously articulate nobleman with magnificence, while Hassell, straight from his first scene, emerging from beneath thrashing sheets with a harlot, conveys with plausibility not only liveliness and debauchery, but also, somehow, the ambition that will cause him to forsake his drinking companions and work his way back into his father’s favour.
That father, Henry IV himself, is also played admirably, by Jasper Britton. The choreography of the opening scene, however, was the masterstroke that enabled this successful delivery of the political side of the play, revolving around threats to the king’s reign from Henry Percy, known as ‘Hotspur’ (portrayed by Trevor White in a way you’d imagine a young Rik Mayall to do it, with wildness and fury relieved by sharply comic edges), the Welshman Glendower and the Scottish Douglas. This half of the play has a tendency to seem dry, but the very first scene, with ecclesiastical chants and candles whose smoky fragrance ascended to the audience, completing the early fifteenth-century atmosphere suggested by the set, ensured that the essential psychological focus was not lost.
As if in direct continuation from the RSC’s production of Richard II (starring David Tennant), it showed the old king, in saintly garments and lighting, watching from a raised bridge above the stage as Henry placed the crown on his head, thus explaining the guilt over Richard’s murder in Pontefract Castle that insinuates itself further into Henry’s mind over the course of both Henry IV plays.
Other highlights include Hassell’s delivery of the line ‘I do. I will’ into a movingly fertile silence (those who know what change is to follow in the relationship between Hal and Falstaff will hopefully appreciate that rather unusual choice of adjective), and Falstaff’s ‘Honour’ speech (although, to be pernickety about an otherwise flawless performance, Sher omitted the line ‘a trim reckoning’ from this). Hotspur’s mocking comments on Glendower’s boasts over his nativity were hilarious, as was the ear-twisting restraint imposed on the headstrong Percy by the Earl of Worcester.
Overall, it was a fine performance. The ending, with the king, prince and Lancaster standing over a map of England, planning their next moves after the battle of Shrewsbury that comes just before the close of Part One, is the perfect lead-up to tomorrow night’s performance of Part Two. Going by tonight’s standards, that will be something to look forward to!