An “Outstanding Dramatic Work”: RSC’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry IV at the Barbican, London

Broken Britain, corruption and social polemics: sound familiar? Joshua Potts finds that a timely adaptation of Henry IV remains Shakespeare‘s most humanistic dissection of rulers and state…

The kingdom is sick. There is a war being waged that people have little care for, or see as anything more than a quick cash grab, another line to their pockets. Under the eye of a paranoid leader they quibble and drink while defectors soil the government, frantically sowing the seeds of a future void of form.

Yes, I’m paraphrasing Bob Dylan here to reference Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and I think I’ve earned it. It’s not often you get to associate one great poet with another. Shakespeare was always suspicious of politics – he was the prototypical spokesman for the weaponised potential of mainstream art, even if he did put his words into the mouths of others.

For the cynics amongst you, the scene above might seem familiar. Insert a bedroom tax here, a Milliband mugshot there, and you have Broken Britain: a theatre of rascals running hither and thither trying to make sense of what went wrong in a nation struggling to find its own reflection in the mud.

“the RSC’s current interpretation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 is incredibly timely… the Bard’s most humanistic dissections of rulers and state”

Aside from the fact Gordon Brown was never forcibly booted out of office (something which I’m sure we would’ve all liked to see back in 2008, but hey, it seems like we want to put everyone’s head on a spike these days), The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) current interpretation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 is incredibly timely. The middle chunk of a historical tetralogy (following on from David Tenant’s lauded turn as Richard II last year), these two plays represent the Bard’s most humanistic dissections of rulers and state, juggling social polemics like a circus act awaiting the sobering cry of disaster.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry IV at the Barbican, London

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) would know a thing or two about high wires: he walks the line between the common rabble and the expectations of his father, the king who deposed his God-given predecessor with brute force, now fighting illness and the weight of a heavy crown. Henry is played by Jasper Britton, a veteran performer who has given us memorable Macbeths and Calibans over the years; doubtless, his experience will secure another résumé highlight, providing the monarch’s best intentions can worm through the requisite guilt and anxiety.

“This younger version of the character has always interested me more than the Boy’s Own warrior urging us once more into the breach”

Director Gregory Doran exceeds in the tavern scenes, which are vital to Part 1’s sense of voraciousness, yet equally horrid in Part 2’s darker obsession with physical decay. As old order changes for the new, expect to see sets washed in smoke, filth and the imperceptible air of regret – Doran has commented on the “ache” of the plays’ narrative momentum, how the symbolic purge of corruption paves the way for Henry V.

This younger version of the character has always interested me more than the Boy’s Own warrior urging us once more into the breach, and I suspect the transition from man-of-the-people to embryonic hero will once again entertain our sympathies. Let’s hope Nigel Farage doesn’t set down his pint glass long enough to buy a ticket.

In addition to a fantastic performance by Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly, the production boasts a sublime Jack Falstaff. The overweight, apologetic, thieving party animal was such a hit in Shakespeare’s day that an epilogue at Part 2’s end promises his reappearance (which the playwright delivered in The Merry Wives of Windsor). It is still easy to see why this tragi-comic figure is so beloved by audiences, for his depth (emotional and physical) is truly outrageous. Anthony Sher nails his vagabond edge – the whoring, the stealing, the beardy and brutish confidence – while tapping into Falstaff’s cowardly charm, emerging as a ruddy-faced planet knocked out of orbit when he realises his best friend, the prince, may soon have to disown him. “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” he famously crows to a throng of assembled drunkards. Never, in any century, will he be absent from the stage.

This is the RSC’s final run of this outstanding dramatic work. Reviews for the production’s stint at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre earlier this year have been glowing; it’s up to us to look at our times and find joy in the madness, shelter from the storm, a feather in the cap too often wafted for spare change.

Joshua Potts

Catch The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV — Part 1 and Part 2 — at the Barbican, London until 24 January 2015

Show times 1.30pm and 7.15pm — full price £55/25; day tickets £10; 16-25 year olds £5

Posted on 17/12/2014 by thedoublenegative