Henry IV Parts I & II – Review – Bradford Alhambra

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Henry IV Parts I & II – Review

Bradford Alhambra, October 2014

by Sandra Callard

William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II depicts the turbulent early 15th century. Here, Henry Bolingbroke seizes the throne of England from Richard II and has him murdered. He crowns himself Henry IV, thus instigating the tumultuous and bloodthirsty years which became known as the Wars of the Roses. This is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production. It was a massive success in Stratford and is now touring.

henry iv yorkshire theatreWatching these plays back to back, the productions would last over six hours. So Shakespeare very sensibly split the story into two manageable parts. Thus two visits to the theatre are required. No difficult task. Gregory Doran directs this new production, and there is a first class cast. Including, surprisingly, the wonderful Sir Anthony Sher, playing Sir John Falstaff. Sher, hitherto known for his gut-wrenching Shakespearean tragedy roles, and in particular his astounding Richard III, is now showing us his comic side.

“What’s this?” you may ask. Anthony Sher being comical? Laughing and falling-down-drunk comical? How can one of our greatest Shakespearean tragedians play the grotesque, drunken, obese, comic character of Falstaff. Well, he can and he does. And if you can forgive the X Factor parlance, he nails it! He savours each word with unhurried deliberation. He bestows his witticisms on the audience like a gift. And, of course, annunciation is a dream. His face accentuates each comic situation so we understand and ‘get’ every joke. Sher is perfect for the part of Falstaff and is completely and utterly hilarious.

“Wonderfully cinematic”

Falstaff is a friend and mentor to Prince Hal of everything raucous, unruly and illegal. Alex Hassell plays Hal joyously. Their friendship and love for each others’ company shines throughout Part I. Hal ignores the fact that he will one day become king and concentrates on drinking and womanising with Falstaff. Hassell is a superb Hal, drinking and wenching his way through life. He’s a grave sorrow to his father, who compares him unfavourably with Harry Hotspur, the hotheaded son of the Duke of Northumberland. Harry is the darling of the chivalric fighting knights.

henry iv bradfordTrevor White relishes the role of Hotspur. He paints the famous warrior as a battle-mad juvenile with psychotic tendencies. He careers around the stage shouting his revenge on Henry. Although his take on Hotspur borders on parody, he nevertheless produces a novel and scintillating character. His sword fight with Prince Hal is wonderfully cinematic, fast, furious and realistic. A total credit to the fight arranger, Terry King.

The cast is superb and give their full support to the leads. Jasper Britton makes an impressive entrance as King Henry IV, a bedevilled and doubt-ridden usurper. His precarious throne rocked by rebellion. The leaders of the opposition are led by the Percies, a wealthy and influential family from Northumberland. They feel slighted by Henry and are out for revenge.

“Moving and tearful”

Three stalwarts who stand out from the supporting cast are Joshua Richard as Falstaff’s aide, Bardolph, Paola Dionisotti’s Mistress Quickly, and Oliver Ford Davies as Justice Shallow. Here are three perfectly honed performances which are near flawless.

It is not until Part II that Hal finally grasps his destiny as he takes the crown, somewhat prematurely, from his dying father. This important and pivotal scene, is spoiled for me somewhat by the fact that Hal’s voice was so low and quiet that I could not hear a word. And, yes, I was in the front stalls.

However, after a searing lambasting from his awakening father, King Henry elicits a heartfelt promise from Hal that he will change his loose habits and knuckle down to kingship. He does this thoroughly, even to the point of renouncing his friendship with his old friend Falstaff. It’s a moving and tearful moment. Sher rings every ounce of pathos from the situation. He changes heart-renderingly from a laughing clown to a sad old man, as Hal strides on to glory as Henry V.

“Heart-wrenching”

henry iv anthony sherNow, far be it for me to question Shakespeare’s motives in constructing this plot. But aren’t Henry IV Parts I and II  history plays? They do seem to me to be more of a comedy showpiece for Falstaff, with cameo pieces depicting the war going on around them. Not that I’m complaining. The comedy is superb. But if you expect a historical depiction of the reign of Henry IV, you will be a tad baffled. It’s there all right, but in infinitely less volume than the comedy. Whilst Jasper Britton’s heart-wrenching portrayal of the guilt-ridden Henry is first class, the huge chunks of comedy, interspersed with short bursts of historical drama, do not sit easily with me. I prefer my plays to be either historical or comical. Here we have both, which will surely suit those who like two for the price of one.

But petty gripes aside, this is a superlative production. It is performed by a superlative cast. The icing on the cake is Sir Anthony Sher, whose Falstaff will surely ride alongside his Richard III as definitive of its genre.

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