Could it have been timed better? On the eve of an election where the electorate is forced to contemplate the consequences of going to war, the National Theatre gives us this study of kingship, national identity and the uses and abuses of power.
Taking as its starting point, Carlisle’s speech from Richard II (“let me prophesy/the blood of English shall manure the ground”), Nicholas Hytner’s excellent production gets off to a cracking start thanks to Mark Thompson’s striking set, which resembles a Bosch’s depiction of the aftermath of war.
David Bradley’s Henry IV appears in the midst of this mayhem. Against a background of weeping women, his is a classic portrayal of a usurper tortured by the consequences of his deeds. But despite his almost monastic demeanour, there’s a residual anger there. In an impressive performance, sharpened by crystal clear verse-speaking, Bradley captures all sides of this complex character. His is one of the most rounded Henrys I’ve seen.
As his son Prince Hal, however, Matthew Macfadyen seems too controlled, almost as if he’s already aware of the heavier duty that faces him. How much is this a man only playing at being a young blood? Does he actually think he can combine fleshly pleasures with good governance? There’s never a sense that this prince is truly a part of Falstaff’s merry band. In Part 1, there’s a clear alternative to Hal in the charismatic Hotspur, outstandingly played by David Harewood. It’s easy to see why the king might compare his own son unfavourably to him.
Michael Gambon’s Falstaff has been long-anticipated (Gambon was first approached to play the role nearly 20 years ago by Hytner’s artistic director predecessor Richard Eyre). While Gambon neatly captures Falstaff’s bombastic selfishness, his diction is sadly astray with too many indistinct words, a real tragedy for this, the most fluent of braggers.
Part 1 is much the stronger of the two plays. Aside from the glorious comic interlude set at Shallow’s house (a scene-stealing performance from John Wood), Part 2 seems too much of a precursor to Henry V – one really gets the impression that Shakespeare was itching to write about his hero. Even Henry’s rejection of Falstaff in the final scene loses a bit of its impact thanks to the prince’s clear acceptance of his kingly duties.
But, as Hytner so ably demonstrates, taken together these two plays do present a wonderful picture of an England on the cusp of change. And with their account of one the country’s great heroes and anti-heroes, they offer us both a marvellous snapshot of Englishness and an incisive analysis of the paths to political power.
- Maxwell Cooter