1 Henry IV (RSC) @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2014History

  • Eoin Price
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1 Henry IV, directed by Gregory Doran for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 16 April 2014

Review by Eoin Price

Joshua Richards, Antony Sher and Youssef Kerkour in Henry lV Parts l and ll

Gregory Doran’s Henry IV began where his Richard II left off. As King Henry (here played by Jasper Britton, rather than Nigel Lindsay) acknowledged his guilt at deposing the anointed Richard II, the ghost of David Tennant’s Richard, dressed in white, those odd hair extensions unmistakable, watches from the balcony. It was a jarring intrusion then and it’s a jarring intrusion now: we are invited, perhaps, to think about the relationship between the two plays but it feels more like a scarcely necessary allusion to a star actor than an attempt to illuminate either play. Yet the production quickly recovers from this early misjudgement. Britton’s Henry is an impressive figure who seizes the audience’s attention in that important first speech; he conveys anguish and contrition perfectly well without the need for the conspicuous prop of a ghost.

Indeed, there’s much else to admire; I found this production more playful and willing to challenge audience expectations than some of Doran’s other work. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the characterizations of Falstaff (Anthony Sher), Hal (Alex Hassell), and Hotspur (Trevor White). Falstaff, for many, is the play’s centrepiece, but Doran was unafraid to show him as chillingly unfeeling. At one point, Falstaff remains centre stage, gently joking to the audience about the ‘scarecrows’ (4.2.38) he has mustered for the war, but his jokes are undercut by the slow, background procession of the bedraggled soldiers. Later, Sher has the audience rapt with a nicely delivered ‘catechism’ on honour; prodding, questioning, and supplying the answers: ‘What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air.’ (5.1.133-5) Falstaff’s funny here, but he can’t wriggle into my affections that easily. This is a man who Hal will be right to turn away from, and not simply because he is an improper companion for a prince. There’s tenderness, and comedy, certainly, but Sher’s rasping Falstaff emerges as a sad charlatan.

One senses, too, that Hal learns this in that moment, when he sees Falstaff’s ‘pitiful rascals’ (4.2.64), but it’s tempting to say that he knows it all along, for his Hal exhibited an unusual degree of poise and control. Indeed, Hal is perhaps a little less dissolute than might be imagined: sure, our first sight of him is in his bed, having evidently enjoyed a pleasant evening with two ladies, but there is a surprising degree of distance between Hal and Falstaff. This early moment of dissipation is rather different to the subsequent gulling scene in which he and Poins trick Falstaff and co. From here, it’s possible to view these moments of indulgence as having a political premise. Hassell brought out the Machiavellian overtones of the ‘I know you all’ soliloquy (1.2.192): I felt invited to think about all of Hal’s subsequent actions as a political game. By the end, Hal’s bold decision to let the captured Douglas free without ransom seems like the logical final pronouncement of the power he has always demonstrated.

This sense of Hal as a perceptive politician is corroborated by the characterization of Hotspur. Traditionally the noble, politically active prince-figure that Henry wishes might be exchanged for his son by a night-tripping fairy, White’s Hotspur was a wild, uncontrollable boy; undeniably striking in his lust for aggression, but not, perhaps, the image of courtly nobility he is often assumed to be. Hal describes him as a ‘child of honour and renown’ (3.2.139) and White certainly played up the childishness. Hal has childish tendencies too, indeed, both young men are grabbed by the ear when they are thought to be misbehaving, but the naughty boy treatment makes most sense when it is applied to Hotspur, who often stomps around the stage, raging and gesticulating. At times he appears, not so much childish, as dangerously unhinged, laughing wildly and dancing for joy before battle. Hotspur gets laughs where one might not expect him to get laughs: he jumps on to the throne once the King has left the room in a treasonous act of petulance; he scrunches up a letter and throws it into the audience, but not before talking at it as if it were a person: ‘What pagan rascal is this! An infidel!’ (2.4.27-8)

The characterizations of Hotspur and Falstaff in particular, have wide-ranging ramifications for the way the play works. On the one hand, they add nuance to the play, on the other, they risk limiting or unbalancing it. That Hotspur’s temperament seems so ill-suited to power calls into question the language of honour with which he is frequently associated. Are those who call him honourable right to do so, or are they misguided? When Hotspur is killed, are we to feel remorse at the loss of a great champion and potential ruler, or relief that a dangerous and deranged threat has been removed? Some of the interesting choices, designed to make Hotspur a fascinating and unpredictable character, ultimately rob his death of some of the gravity it might be expected to have. It sometimes feels like White is going against the grain of the character, much as I appreciated his efforts and it’s true, also, that his habits can become a bit wearisome. Likewise, the decision to bring out, in Falstaff, the sad and the sinister, mean that some of his jokes and set-pieces can seem tedious. Highlighting the unpalatable aspects of a character does not preclude sympathy, or jollity, but it does complicate it, and again, at times, this difficult balance seemed askew. One hundred years on from WWI it is hard to watch an entitled nobleman send a seemingly interminable parade of soldiers to their death, yet the RSC, whose 2014 Winter Season seeks to commemorate the conflict, put this image in my mind as they probed at Falstaff’s disturbing side. It’s a powerful image, but does it make Falstaff too unpalatable? If it doesn’t, should it?

Eoin Price

Author: Eoin Price

Eoin Price is Tutor in Renaissance Literature at Swansea University. He recently completed a PhD on public drama and political privacy in Renaissance England at The Shakespeare Institute. He has written for the Map of Early Modern London, The Year's Work in English Studies and Literature Compass, regularly reviews books and theatre for a range of journals, serves as the UK Theatre Review Editor for the Marlowe Society of America Newsletter and blogs about Renaissance drama at asidenotes.wordpress.com. You can follow Eoin on Twitter @eoin_price