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Henry IV Part I (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC)

RSC Associate Artist Antony Sher returns to play the infamous comic knight Falstaff

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Antony Sher as Falstaff
© Kwame Lestrade

Although it is hard to imagine it now, Henry IV Part I was initially one of the most successful of all of Shakespeare's works. And whilst it is now not quite so frequently performed as others in the Histories cycle, it remains a popular choice for directors, audiences and actors.

Visually Greg Doran's new production is a treat. There are elements that recur from the recent successful Richard II but there is an earthiness and robustness to the design that counterparts well with the more ethereal quality of the first part of the tetralogy. Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a stage design that uses various textures of wood and timber to ground the play perfectly and switches almost effortlessly between the many locations demanded by the text. It is lit to perfection by Tim Mitchell who clearly knows how to exploit both light and shade to illuminate mood and character. The costumes blend period inspiration with nods to modern tailoring to complete a visually rich stage presentation.

There is no lack of action in the play with incident after incident tumbling across the stage with energy and vigour. At the centre of it all is the engaging and playful Hal of Alex Hassell. He wins the audience over from his first moments and he lights up the stage with all his interactions. I particularly enjoyed the close bond with Poins - played strongly by Sam Marks. Hassell is also well contrasted with Trevor White's almost manically impetuous Hotspur.

Paola Dionisotti (Mistress Quickly) gives a masterclass in how to imbue a relatively minor role with richness and detail. Although she has all too little to say, she is always the most watchable person on stage. A great interpretation.

But, of course, it is always the Falstaff that people want to know about. The reputation of this character is almost as large as his waistline. And, of course, when you have one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation taking on the role for the first time, he is the big draw for the production. Antony Sher gives a very actorly rendition of the character. He takes each and every word and mines it for meaning and nuance. For me, Falstaff is a difficult man to love - his rogue-ish ways and verbal fecundity can be enjoyed and forgiven, but his self-centred exploitation of most situations is less easy to swallow and thankfully Sher does not shy away from the unpleasant sides of Falstaff. I do not think it will go down as a defining interpretation but it works well within the context of Doran's production and it does bring new insights.

This is a relatively full text production and I do think it could stand some cuts. At over 3 hours, it is too long. Some of the scenes are over-extended and would benefit from trimming. The pace of delivery should also be tightened - whilst it is nice to enjoy the words, they should never be indulged.

As the Stratford run continues and the cast then head out on tour, I am certain that the production will be refined and become tighter. Doran has put together a handsome production with a talented ensemble who work well to bring out the many narrative strands with clarity and commitment.