Henry IV Parts I & 11 (Tour – Salford)

Richard Woodward is impressed with ”Henry IV” Parts I and II.

Henry IV parts 1 & 11
Henry IV parts 1 & 11

The pre-show publicity promised ‘an epic, comic and thrilling vision of a nation in turmoil.’ Well, this is no idle boast as the RSC more than fulfils the promise.

‘Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown’ could not be more apt for this production as the ghost of Richard II hovers over the usurper Henry who already early in his reign is facing opposition.

Warring factions are gathering including those who helped him to the throne and he fears no help from his son Hal who is squandering his time with the low-life of an Eastcheap Tavern. The scene is set for plenty of drama and bloodshed but against this darkness are the gloriously funny scenes with Falstaff and his cronies.

In some productions the rollicking humour of the tavern scenes can unbalance the plays but the director Gregory Doran ensures every moment is part of a whole vision. The comedy comes from truth and the characters are real people with unsurprisingly, counterparts in our modern world.

One of the brilliant distinguishing marks of this production is the constant air of what has been and what is to come. The past has cast its unease over the present and Hal, although apparently a wastrel can see the future when the laughter must stop and he must take on the mantle of King.

This is an ideal production for those new to Shakespeare – clearly spoken with vivid characters that hold the attention as the play races through earthy humour to the darkest drama and yet it also provides riches for those seasoned Shakespearians with its fresh subtleties.

At times the stage is bursting with life filling the vast expanse of the Lowry and then in a trice a solo actor can hold the capacity audience in the palm of his hand as if we are eavesdropping on the most intimate of conversations.

Gregory Doran directs with flair assembling a fine cast. Alex Hassell as Hal charts the progress of the Prince with such credibility and Jasper Britton in the title role plays with strength.

Antony Sher makes a delicious Falstaff bringing out all the humour without losing the poignancy and the uncertainty of this fruity and flawed character. Trevor White brings fresh life to the fiery Hotspur and we get a droll Bardolph from Joshua Richards. Amongst a fine supporting company providing strength right down the line is the Poins of Sam Marks and the endearing double act of Jim Hooper and Oliver Ford Davies as the Justices.

Part II may be the lesser play but there are still riches to be found there and the journey through the two plays is well worth the time spent in the theatre. Having completed a successful summer season at Stratford the plays run like clockwork and all departments of the RSC should be congratulated. Henry IV shows the RSC at the top of its game.

Henry IV parts 1 and 11 continues at the Lowry until 25 October.