There is a school of thought that believes that the two Henry IVs are Shakespeareís most perfect plays, for the way they mix history, they way they deal with family relationships and for the heady mix of wordplay and bawdy humour.
Certainly Michael Attenboroughís production is strong on the historical perspective (as befits a play that sits within the RSCís , This England series). The unfolding of the historical events is handled with pace and verve Ė if only history lessons were this interesting at school.
But the play is much, much more than a jaunt through history. Its real power lies in the troubled relationship between Henry and his dissolute son Hal and the glorious interplay between Hal and his surrogate father Falstaff. Over and above these relationships stands the glorious character of Hotspur, in many ways, the real star of the play.
David Troughtonís Henry is a superb rendition of a man broken by the cares of state. Already troubled by the manner of his usurpation, and his feelings of guilt over the death of Richard II, the successive rebellions have given him a world-weary aspect. Troughton presents a man, driven almost to the brink by his domestic wars and an heir that refuses to behave in a kingly man.
William Houstonís Hal is a sprightly, good-humoured yob, but there are early indications of the king that he is to become. The play-acting that he carries out with Falstaff, where each in turn plays the King and Hal, takes on a serious aspect when Hal takes his turn on the throne. For the first time, we see him vested with authority and Falstaff is given ample warning of how he will be treated under the new regime.
More disappointing is Adam Levyís Hotspur. Although he is certainly impetuous and hot-tempered, he comes across more as peevish than as righteously angry. Itís hard to see why even his enemies sing this characterís praises.
The standout performance is Desmond Barritís Falstaff. Having put in some sterling comic displays for the RSC, Barrit could almost have been waiting for this moment: he doesnít disappoint. Relishing every opportunity for wordplay, he toys with the insults, the barbs, the quips, enjoying the taste of all of them as if they were food and wine to him. And yet, there is something melancholic about this Falstaff; one feels that this is a character who knows that his end is not too far away and that his time with Hal will represent his last chance to rage against the dying of the light.
The This England cycle is an admirable project one that will give theatergoers a chance to see English history unfold. But there is one quibble: we see the same actors playing the same characters in different plays, but they donít all have the same directors. So, for example, Hotspur who is a militaristic, faintly fascistic figure in Richard II has become some temperamental yuppie by Henry IV and Christopher Saulís Northumberland has changed from a smoothly bureaucratic manipulator to a hot-tempered nobleman. If the plays are seen in rapid succession, this could have a jarring effect.
Note: The following review dates from this production's original Stratford run in April 2000.
The earth of England smokes and glows like the side of a volcano or the floor of Hell in Es Devlin's dramatic design for Michael Attenborough's Henry IV Part 1. The burning country reflects the fire in the king's mind as, wracked with guilt for deposing and murdering his predecessor, he wrestles with the problem of a revolt by the Percy family in the north, and their allies in Wales and Scotland.
To make things worse, his son Hal, the Prince of Wales, has deserted his royal duties and taken up a debauched life in Eastcheap with Falstaff and his drunken and criminal cronies. It's only when the revolt leads to war that Hal stirs himself and shows his true worth on the battlefield.
As Falstaff Desmond Barrit looks and sounds magnificent. He's a real mountain of flesh, for whom movement is a problem, and his vocal power is astounding. But otherwise, this is far from your stereotypical Falstaff. Never rolling drunk, he wanders around in an alcoholic haze. The booze makes him, not so much merry and playful as lugubrious and self-pitying. We laugh at his antics, but are in no danger of splitting our sides. Barrit gives us not jolly Jack Falstaff, but a complex, rather sad figure, for whom the tragedy of disappointment and rejection is clearly just around the corner.
We wonder what Prince Hal finds so pleasurable in his company, and so it seems does William Houston. His prince appears to be indulging himself in London low-life as a sort of perverse duty, and it's a relief both to him and to us when war breaks out and he can don his armour and go out and fight the rebels. This is a Hal much more at home on the battlefield than in the tavern.
If the relationship between Hal and Falstaff fails to spark, that between the prince and his father is electric. David Troughton is magnificent as King Henry IV - his power and authority dominate this production. This is a great performance by a major actor at the height of his powers; subtle, complex and absorbing, it establishes a new centre of gravity in the play. The great public affairs of the realm engross the audience far more than the low comedy.
Never before have I seen the Battle of Shrewsbury so well realised on a stage. Space in the Swan is limited, but Attenborough and fights director Terry King use that to their advantage. By seeing the warfare in close-up, the narrative is crystal clear and the characterisation paramount. Adam Levy's Hotspur, who has more energy than charisma, provides a superb set-piece fight-to-the-death with Hal which has the audience on the edge of their seats with excitement.
This production, a little slow to start, gathers momentum as it proceeds and moves to a thrilling climax. Don't be fooled by the 'Part One' in the title. Shakespeare's first play about Henry IV is complete in itself. But many will be eager to see the sequel, if only to see more of Troughton's king and discover how his relationship with his son is finally resolved.
Henry IV Part 1 opened at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19 April 2000 (previews from 10 April) and continues there in repertory until 7 October 2000.