Henry IV Parts I & II

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the Barbican Theatre.


It is a pleasure to welcome back to the London stage one of our finest actors namely Antony Sher in a role he makes his own as the infamous comic knight Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Barbican Theatre.

Richard II is dead and Henry Bolingbroke is now Henry IV. The king feels guilty about the removal of Richard and it troubles his conscience. He would like to go to the Holy Land to pay penance but there are problems at home. His reign is threatened by growing opposition from some of the very nobles who helped him to the throne – especially the Percy family. Wales and Scotland are threatening rebellion and Richard’s nominated heir, Edward Mortimer looms on the horizon. King Henry’s treatment of Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s son, only makes matters worse.

Henry’s own son and heir, Prince Hal, is living a dissolute life, frequenting the taverns of Eastcheap in the company of Sir John Falstaff and other disreputable characters.

Opposition to the king becomes open rebellion, led by Hotspur, who now supports his brother-in-law Edward Mortimer’s claim to the throne. This rebellion brings Hal back to his father’s side – the moment for behaving more like a prince has come. The king’s army meet the rebel at the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hal vows to seek out and defeat Hotspur.

This epic vision of nation in turmoil and the realities of wielding power strikes some surprising contemporary chords yet it is a relief to find that the company have chosen to perform the works in the dress of the period, rather than modern attire. Director Gregory Doran captures the mood and atmosphere of the times and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. I was particularly moved by the scene in Warwickshire where we see Falstaff’s ragged recruits shuffling across the stage en route to certain death.

There is no doubt the centre of attention is Antony Sher. He makes a magnetic Falstaff balancing the man’s cruelty with sufficient charm to make us root for him. But just as you start to warm to this bearded, pot-bellied knave, you are reminded of his rapacity. He treats Paola Dionisotti doting Mistress Quickly with a degree of contempt and even when in the sublime Gloucestershire scenes in Part II, he meets up with Justice Shallow (an excellent Oliver Ford Davis) his instinctive reaction is to treat him as financial prey. Jasper Britton makes an anguished and tormented Henry IV, while Alex Hassell and Trevor White both impress as Hal and Hotspur respectively.

A further word of praise – all the actors enunciate their lines with great clarity, so Shakespeare’s eloquence is never lost.

Certainly the RSC on top form!

Runs until January 24

Box office: 0845 120 7511

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