Every revival of both parts of Henry IV - six hours of comedy, history and tragedy commingled - confirms their greatness as a panoramic view of England on the move across its widest social range.
And director Dominic Dromgoole plumbs deeper into the Jerusalem-style mystical, mythical soul of England by having mummers in straw masks and large cod-pieces prancing in the foyers and spilling into a platform performance before each play begins.
The old King Henry is wrestling with his own dubious assumption of the crown, and a spreading rebellion, while his son, Prince Hal, plays truant from his destiny, hanging out with Falstaff in Eastcheap. The tumultuous profusion of the plays, which are 50 percent in prose, 50 in poetry, in unequalled in our theatre and are usually the province of the RSC.
Roger Allam’s Falstaff is the focal point of both parts. Never will you hear the role more beautifully or more nimbly spoken. But like most recent Falstaffs - Robert Stephens and David Warner included - there’s little grossness about him. He’s hardly fatter than you or I, and with his long dank wig he looks as knightly as any musketeer.
But in speed of thought, and in being the cause of wit in others, Allam is insurpassable, and has a high old time in the Gadshill adventure, playing “dead” at the battle of Shrewsbury, dodging the strictures of the Lord Chamberlain and mollifying Mistress Quickly.
The love scene with Jade Williams’ bruised and battered Doll Tearsheet - who does the compulsory Globe “vomiting into the audience” scene on her entrance - is an elegiac farewell to sensuality and free living.
Prince Hal’s example, as far as his father is concerned, is that flower of chivalry, Harry Hotspur, and the two are well contrasted in Jamie Parker’s affable-turning-steely prince and Sam Crane’s unusually comical, impassioned upstart. This Hotspur’s like a small, peeved boy, defending the right to his prisoners; but is he exactly “the glass wherein the noble youth did dress themselves”?
Essay questions aside, this is an irresistible romp through the plays, the cockpit decorated by Jonathan Fensom with a prodigality of heraldic banners, the action underpinned with Claire van Kampen’s brassy, melancholic music; there’s a lovely Welsh song for Lady Mortimer, and even Falstaff and Hal chip in with a mandolin and flute duet.
Oliver Cotton booms tetchily as the old king, William Gaunt shivers wheezily as old Shallow, Danny Lee Wynter is an eye-catching, epicene Poins and a splendidly mincing Feeble, and Paul Rider achieves a startling double as a bottle-nosed, sluggish little Bardolph and a crisply chilling Archbishop Scroop. Follow the bard’s advice: construe the time to their necessities, and hop along to the Globe.