Henry IV Part 1 UCLU Drama Society, Bloomsbury Theatre 13 November 2014.
Reviewed by Miranda Fay Thomas
There is always a slight sense of trepidation when going to see a student production; particularly a student production in London, where we are spoilt for choice with professional shows; even more so, perhaps, when the production in question is Shakespeare; and perhaps most of all when it is Henry IV Part 1. At first glance, it seems like an ideal choice for a student production: the young, impetuous Hal rebelling from his father’s control parallels with errant sons going wild in freshers’ week; indeed, as term drags on, parents across the country must wonder when, exactly, their young adult children are going to stop partying, settle down, and actually get some proper work done. But in other ways, this play is hugely difficult for students to grapple with: the key central figure is, after all, an ageing Falstaff, who although conjuring the joy of a merry life finds his physical health dwindling and restrictive to the fun that he is so keen to chase.
This production’s framing device is constructed around a 1940s theme: Henry IV is a Churchillian head of state, who begins the play by conducting a radio broadcast in rumbly tones. It is an apt choice, given this month’s preoccupation with the centenary of World War One, and the recent release of The Imitation Game; with so many war-time images occupying our collective consciousness, it does not take a lot for the audience to piece out the imperfections with their thoughts and re-locate a play about medieval power-struggles to an era whose legacy still seems rather close. The phrasing of the opening speech, with its measured and reverent use of repetition, conjures Winston rather well (‘No more the thirsty entrance of this soil / Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood; / No more shall trenching war channel her fields’). Pavlos Christodoulou is rather a good Henry: he remains an onstage presence for the majority of the first half, working in a war-time office filled with maps, a typewriter, an old Bakelite telephone and, naturally, a large, imposing portrait of the leader himself. Throughout the antics of the Eastcheap crew, he paces and thinks, planning out his military stratagems and emphasising the real work being done while Hal shirks his responsibilities. It is a thoughtful visual touch, and is indicative of the care that has gone into this production.
Hal (Christian Hines) is dressed in tennis whites and a cricket jumper which, along with his floppy blond hair, seem to be a cipher for ‘public school boy toff’. This is one of the production’s most successful decisions: many productions are content to play the prince as a hero who can enjoy the best of both worlds, making friends among the common people while growing into a king worthy of his country. What really works in Chetin-Leuner’s production is that they are unafraid to play Hal as a bit of a brat. In an age of austerity, cuts, and a Conservative-led government unpopular with students, playing Hal as the epitome of privilege and self-satisfaction serves to make him less likeable than other recent iterations of the prince – but more interesting, and actually more believable. When he is dressed down in his father’s office, and he promises ‘I shall be more like myself’, one wonders who that really is: in this production, he is a character who plays his cards close to his chest in order to remain ultimately self-serving.
While we have this interesting take on Hal, the same cannot be said of Falstaff (Oliver Marsh). It almost seems like an unfair comment to make upon a student production, but the old knight is simply too young to be credible. Marsh’s Falstaff lacks the mercurial quality that would normally make the character an audience favourite. During the king-maker scene, the Eastcheap Bar are in hysterics, which only really serves to highlight the silence that the audience greets them with. There is no denying how demanding the role of Falstaff is: it is a role actors play when far too old to be Hamlet, and slightly too young to be Lear, but either way it is a role that can only be managed by a vastly experienced actor, used to playing to the gallery and innately knowledgable in how to both flatter and trick an audience. Unfortunately, Marsh is not there yet. Indeed, anticipating the battle, Falstaff’s line ‘I would it were bedtime’ becomes childish rather than age-weary.
More successful are the female roles, usually somewhat scarce in a history play, but improved in this production with the casting of Annie Hawkins as the Countess of Worcester. She is glorious in furs, sassily dismissing herself after disagreeing with the King, and she brings a cut-glass sharpness that is a vampish counterpart to the bolshy Hotspur (performed well by Eddie-Joe Robinson). But one of the best set-pieces is Hotspur’s scene with Kate (Olivia France): sentimental piano music tinkles in the background as she tantalises her husband from their bed. France is a feisty, spoilt, yet charming wife, and Hotspur can barely contain himself from ravishing her. Her imploring question ‘Do you not love me?’ has a poignant, Casablanca-esque edge, and the patronising and secretive Hotspur makes perfect sense among 1940s gender relations. It is the most effective scene in the production, and one of the greatest versions of this scene I have ever witnessed.
There are other moments of brilliance: there is a remarkable cameo from the Sheriff (Ed Wing) questioning the taverners, whose deft little movements and comic timing gain him the same amount of laughs in three minutes than the rest of Eastcheap manages over the course of the show. Also of worthy mention is the ditzy Mortimer (Sam Plumb), who appears to understand women as much as he understands Welsh – which isn’t very much at all. He bumbles and fumbles before bossy women like the weedy husbands in a P. G. Wodehouse book, and he really is terribly funny. It is generally a shame, though, that this production has so many wonderfully funny touches, but fails in the comic colossus that is Falstaff.
Lifting the play onto the 1940s works rather well, and is effectively executed, up until the battle scene itself. At this point, the cohesive world cleverly built up by the design team becomes far more fragmented: groups of soldiers come on and off stage, pummelling each other in rather disjointed and unconnected scenes. The entire sequence tends to drag: despite the relief of some decisive action and some much needed physical comedy, the pacing slips due to the combined lack of dialogue, and no background sound or music, which would have unified the battle scenes. While the green WW2 uniforms are well placed, and there is some rather effective shadow play as the rebels conspire beneath a tented canopy, the second half of the production only really lifts when we hear the honeyed language of Vernon (James Cassir), his gift of tongue lifting the performance and painting the scene the audience really craves to see for themselves.
However, the audience found the reunion between Henry and Hal rather touching, and the King’s final speech, again spoken in a single spotlight as a radio broadcast, creates an effective conclusion and a strong final image. There is no doubt that UCLU Drama have absolutely nailed the details of this production, and much of the characterisation is admirable. However, it is what the play is perhaps most famous for, the antics of Falstaff, where it loses its way. A student theatre company as ambitious as this must play to its strengths to be truly successful, and without a credible Sir Jack, we lose perhaps not all the world, but at least a crucial chunk of it.