Henry IV Part One
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon, shortly to transfer to the Barbican.
26 April 2014
When the conclusion you draw about a production of Henry IV Part One is that the finest, most assured and most memorable performance is that given by the actor playing the part of Ned Poins, you know, to mis-quote the Bard, that something is rotten in Bolingbroke’s court and the taverns of Eastcheap.
Yet, there it is. In the Gregory Doran directed revival of Henry IV Part One, now playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and later to transfer to London for a season at the Barbican, it is Sam Marks’s tremendously likeable, intelligently played Poins who triumphs. And Poins does not appear in the second Act.
This production is a follow-up to the David Tennant Richard II of last season and continues the story of the throne of England from where that play ended. The opening sequences here readily evoke the sense of that wonderful production: a spare cathedral-like space, the Crown front and centre, holy music and a feeling of troubled expectancy. There is even, briefly, a ghostly image of the Tennant Richard, as King Henry ponders his situation.
But there is, pretty much, where the similarities end.
At least in terms of the work of the Company. The set from Stephen Brimson Lewis is quite lovely, particularly the pastoral effect created for some of the Falstaff scenes. And Tim Mitchell’s lighting is truly excellent, adding depth and perspective, and true style, to many of the scenes.
The play depends upon four key performances: Falstaff, Hal, Hotspur and Henry. Here, none of those performances come close to the level attained by many of the performers in Richard II; it is not that they are all bad, but none of them are memorable, insightful, arresting or revelatory.
For the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the standard here is not really acceptable. Yes, it is not anything like as bad as the worst productions in the Michael Boyd era, but it certainly is the most pedestrian work that Doran has delivered in the last seven years. RSC Productions should be better than Shakespeare anywhere else in the world. This production is not in that league.
Anthony Sher is the chief difficulty. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s great comic characters, a rogue of tenacious self-serving guile, with a ready tongue, a slavering thirst for alcohol and a capacity to spin a tall tale beyond the skill of ordinary mortals. He almost defines the notion of “loveable rogue”.
So the key attributes sought from an actor are: hilarity and affection. The audience must laugh at and with Falstaff, but care about him. Unless that happens, the character’s eventual fate (at the hands of Hal) will not be poignant and affecting as Shakespeare intended.
Sher is not funny and he fails to incite any sympathy from the audience. It’s a dull, lugubrious performance, stuffed full with slow over-articulation and selfish solo turns. He never seems to be in a scene with anyone else and, especially, there is no sense of a true bond between he and Hal.
His costume and wig do not help proceedings. He looks like he has strayed from the set of The Hobbit, rather than like a real flesh and blood person. Wide eyed mugging can only go so far – Sher tries to utilise it to fuel his entire performance, with the result it falls flat around him.
There is nothing fresh or imaginative about Sher’s performance. Rather, it has the feel of a comic turn from Gilbert and Sullivan, where the actor is doing “the business” laid out in Martyn Green’s notes without really understanding it or finding the truth in the performance of the business himself.
The result is plodding, mildly amusing – but chiefly dull.
Equally dull, quite surprisingly for such a good, reliable actor, is Jasper Britten’s Henry. By the time this play starts, Henry has been on the throne for a long time, time enough for his conscience to be vexed by his part in his predecessor’s deposing and demise. He is a weary, troubled monarch, cursed with a prodigal heir and a discontented nobility.
Britten does not get to grips with the multi-faceted complexity of the character. This Henry seems angry and preoccupied rather than intense and complicated. He is hampered by an appalling hair cut which does much to rob him of credibility (he seems to be growing his hair to the correct length, a task that ought to have been completed well before the first preview) and his mastery of the language is not as confident and assured as it ought to be. There is no sense of his greatness as a King.
Hal is a great part, but it requires a quicksilver sensibility from the actor, an impressive easy charisma, an infectious leaning to mischief and tons of style. Alex Hassall does not gleam as Hal should glean. Certainly, it is difficult to understand why Marks was not Hal and Hassall, Hotspur. The difference in dynamism is profound.
Hassall’s costumes don’t help him either, although when he eventually assumes armour his performance lifts markedly. However, he does not really find either the heroic aspect to Hal or the hedonistic wastrel inherent in being Falstaff’s apprentice.
With Trevor White’s Hotspur, the problem is different. He gives a highly charged performance but it is unfocussed, sprawling. Given the low-key work done by the other leads, White is a bit like a Jack-in-the-Box on a shelf full of Scrabble sets: he stands out but it is not quite clear why he is there, nor how what he does works with the others.
White is at his best in his scenes with Jennifer Kirby’s Lady Percy. In those scenes, his over-the-top attack is blunted and there is clear purpose to his choices. Kirby is poised and at ease with the language and she makes the most of the role.
Perhaps it was just that Richard II promised so much, but this Henry IV Part One did not make one long for Part Two.