“Henry IV, Parts One and Two” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Wednesday 14th July 2010

It just goes on and on. Will it ever stop? How long can this last? Surely we won’t have to endure that much more? These were just a few of the questions being asked by the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe during the press performances of Henry IV Parts One and Two, but not about the shows. No, these questions were directed at that ever-mysterious beast; the weather, and more specifically, rain. Pathetic fallacy always seems like such a good idea, but can be a royal pain in practice. Whilst us groundlings wanted the rain to stop, we would have happily watched Dominic Dromgoole’s outstanding productions for a lot longer than the already lengthy six and a half hours.

These two history plays are arguably some of Shakespeare’s most accomplished, tackling both politics and relationships and successfully mixing the stories of Henry IV’s crumbling court, Hal and Falstaff’s bawdy and the various rebellions which spring up around the country. We are asked moral questions about what is right and wrong but are also treated to some of the funniest scenes in the entire canon.

Henry IV has never had a stable kingdom, and even straight after his deposing of Richard II, he is already “wan with care”. A rebellion led by Harry “Hotspur” Percy and later by his allies tries to unseat the king. Meanwhile Hal, the king’s son, enjoys riotous sessions in the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap with his friend and mentor Sir John Falstaff, but slowly pulls himself away from his irreverent friends as he understands that he is to be the future king. In Dromgoole’s production the contrasts are clearly highlighted, and whilst in Part One there is never really the sense that the King’s power is already sliding away from him, there is an overall sense that he is an inadequate king, highlighted by Oliver Cotton’s portrayal of a weak and short-tempered monarch.

The wild, colourful scenes in Eastcheap pose a striking contrast to the darkness of the court and Hotspur’s rebellion in Part One. All that matters to the publicans is food and drink, but a lot more is at stake when it comes to the crown. Sam Crane as Hotspur holds an erratic tenacity and seems at times to be close to mad. There is even a hint of effeminacy, explaining his blunt rejection of his wife. Nevertheless, we still feel an immense sympathy for him after his sudden death; Henry IV and his son deserved the crown no more than he.

Shrewsbury Field, the battle in Part One, becomes an epic fight, although whether this was simply the production or the added special effect of heavy rain I will never know. They probably complemeted each other. Chaos descends upon the kingdom and from this moment Henry IV’s fate as king is sealed. His reign will not last much longer, unlike, it seems, the actual rain, and when watching this production we feel little sympathy for him.

Many complain that Part Two does not hold the dramatic weight and historical significance found in the prequel, but this production proves that notion to be false. The second part is just as funny, paced and tense as the first, and has some beautiful moments woven into the story. Dromgoole’s production focuses on Falstaff’s story here and squeezes out every possible laugh without making the gags feel overdone. The famous recruitment scene does not disappoint, and William Gaunt as Shallow here deservedly attracts the biggest laughs.

Throughout, Jamie Parker as Prince Hal moves from naïve teen through to warrior, prince and finally king. It would be wrong to say that he does so effortlessly, for Parker shows clearly how Hal struggles to move on from his friends in the tavern, and therefore makes it clear that in fact as lot of effort is involved for the prince. He is a jovial Hal, but always seems to understand, even from the very beginning, that he must at some point move on. The few scenes with his father are played with remarkable sensitivity but are still distant and his final rejection of Falstaff means that I may be arguing for some time that this is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Shakespeare. I ask here for one thing: we need Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future.

Most outstanding is Roger Allam as the infamous Falstaff, bringing out the wit and intellect of this loveable rogue. Falstaff has always been a tricky part to play because his moral corruption contradicts his loyalty to others, but Allam is able to get the entire audience on his side and captures this dichotomy with aplomb. His speech asking “What is honour?” is delivered perfectly, showing Falstaff’s sensitive side, and after his rejection by Hal, all our hearts go straight to Old Jack. Without wanting to hyperbolise, this is a Falstaff that will be remembered for years.

These productions are both delivered with such passion that it is hard not to be enthralled by every moment. Easy to understand, the many layers of Shakespeare’s writing are also clear to pick out. The ensemble of actors, some of whom play six or seven parts clearly enjoy themselves the whole way through and pull together to create this wonderful world amongst Jonathan Fensom’s wooden scaffolding set which evokes both a playground and a battlefield at the same time. Claire van Kampen’s music is also completely necessary, telling us where we are but also underscoring some of the more emotional scenes. Indeed, it is hard to find fault with any aspect of this production.

If you see one thing this summer, see this.

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3 thoughts on ““Henry IV, Parts One and Two” by William Shakespeare”

  1. Thanks Dan, for a very full review. Almost tempts me to travel all the way to London just to see it. Roger Allam is brilliant whatever he’s in, but it sounds as though he excels himself here. Keep blogging on such interesting theatrical experiences, they are a lifeline for those of stuck in the provinces & where theatre has gone down the pan in recent years!

  2. Saw the double bill on Friday. It is a great production and the 2nd part is only weaker ‘cos it pales in comparison to part 1 – one of greatest pieces of playwriting ever. Allam is pitch perfect, his gorgeous voice is abused and roughened but still has the quality to command and compel. Jamie Parker grew in stature and resonance as the productions went on and the rejection of Falstaff at the end was both affecting and believable. My only quibble and it is a tiny one was with William Gaunt – perfect as Shallow – but he was out of his depth as Worcester. Overall I heartily recommend this to all and for 6 hours entertainment for £10 it is the best value in London.

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