After Richard II with David Tennant, RSC head honcho Gregory Doran continues his exploration of Shakespeare's history plays with the two parts of Henry IV. It is clear, lucid and well played; at its best when exploring the melancholia at the heart of the characters, less sure of itself when delving into the bawdy world of Eastcheap.
At its centre is Anthony Sher‘s Falstsaff. Doran has taken the company in a different direction from Michael Boyd’s ensemble days and wants to let our finest actors tackle the great parts. Originally offered to McKellen, Sher rises to the challenge of Shakespeare's fat knight though in truth he cuts it mighty fine. Like the production he struggles at times in the first part to find the drinker who props up the bar, expounding tale after tale,dominatings all and sundry. For an actor who has essayed some of the great Shakespearian roles of darkness, Richard III and Iago, this knight seems a more mild mannered proposition, whether floundering on the floor like a salmon caught in the open or the wounding of a corpse on the battlefield to prove his 'honour' . This mildness works best in the second play as the mood shifts and the autumn fades in. Here he begins to dominate, there is no doubt the stage belongs to him. The highlight of the two evenings is his work with that other acting giant Oliver Ford Davies as Justice Shallow in the orchard scenes, there is a beautiful yearning for a life long gone at the centre of it that brings a lump to the throat. Sometimes the joy of great theatre is to simply sit back and watch two great actors rally the ball back and forth, prodding and probing for a new insight, its as gripping as anything Federer and Nadal have thrown up.
Doran has talked about Henry IV being his favourite of all Shakespeare but they are tricky to pull off. The first part in particular veers between the bawdiness, the regal and the battlefield and Doran doesn’t fully pull off the competing moods and atmospheres. The crown scenes are done well with a deep sense of gravitas and religiosity, accompanied by Paul Engisby's choral soundscape and led by Jasper Britton‘s guilt ridden, disease hit Henry. The tavern scenes feel as stately, as though Bardolph, Pistol et al have arrived at a Downton tea party rather than a bar stenched in the smell of alcohol and women, even with Paola Dionistti‘s flirty, husky, impressive Mistress Quickly at its helm.
Alex Hassell seems, from the moment he pokes his head out of the duvet dismissing two wrenches from their service, to be the king in waiting. He can’t escape Tom Hiddlestone’s defining Hal in the Hollow Crown but gives an intelligent, thoughtful and well judged performance. If the last rejection scene is not devastating its more down to the awkward staging then the finely calibrated performances here. With Biff in Death Of A Salesman andpotentially his Henry V to come, he may be the next breakout star for the company as Jonathan Slinger was under Boyd. Trevor White‘s bleached blonde Hotspur (uncannily like Kenneth Branagh in his Hamlet film) is a touch to crazy to convince that the King would want him in place of his son but the fight between Hal and himself on the field of Shrewbury is a balletic delight.
The six hours of stage time showcase why Doran believes this to be the greatest of the works (its not of course-Lear is) but its not a revelatory production. Sher, if not hitting the ranks of great Fallstaff’s, is perched in just underneath and there is enough fine playing in the ranks from deep to suggest Doran’s time will be well served by the acting company.