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January 30, 2008

The Fat Man Trying to Get Out: Henry IV, Parts I & II at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I & II
directed by Michael Boyd and Richard Twyman
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 17th July 2007 - 14th March 2008

I am in no doubt that Henry IV, taken as a whole, is my favourite play. It has an epic, all-embracing scale. From an actor's point of view it is full of substantial roles: the King, Hotspur, Northumberland, Glendower are all challenging and rewarding - while Hal and Falstaff are way beyond that.

Even relatively small parts like Poins, Mistress Quickly and Justice Shallow offer plenty of scope and the play is well worth seeing many times not least because there are plots within it which may go almost unnoticed in one production yet seem moving and important in another - such as the love that blossoms between Edmund Mortimer and Glendower's daughter after a very political marriage and in the absence of a common language. This is not tragedy or comedy, but both and much else besides.

Yet having said all that, I realise that it doesn't really capture my feelings about the play at all.

The extra dimension, the sense of excitement, is something different: it is that when, after a few minutes of Part I, the action transfers to the Boar's Head Tavern it is to meet two characters who are recognisably our own cultural ancestors. The streetwise aristocratic tearaway with the hint of a nasty streak will develop into our paradigm of a hero - like the sun coming through the mist, as he tells us himself. Nothing whatsoever to do with the real Henry V, of course, any more than British secret agents are really like James Bond: art can be so much more important than the history it purports to describe. And in his fat friend we see the beginnings of a national philosophy; and if not that, at least the permanent alternative to any orthodoxy.

All of which would imply that you have to be English or Anglophile to get the full value of the play - though it is popular in the United States. In educational institutions it is much liked for it range of discussable themes: honour, hedonism, guilt, responsibility, friendship, patriotism. And Americans can relate fairly easily to the dissolute scion of a powerful political family who eventually comes to power himself.

I was intrigued to catch up with this production because it has divided the critics so sharply. Falstaff is played by a local boy - Leamington Spa's own David Warner, returning to the RSC after a lifetime of such films as Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment, Straw Dogs and Titanic.

But Warner is a famously lean and lugubrious actor - a natural Cassius, you might say: to cast him as the traditionally fat and jolly Falstaff is either perverse or interesting, depending how you look at it and this production has both exasperated and delighted. You would expect the RSC to do false bellies rather well, but there was even criticism that this one didn't convince.

Worse, it was said there was no warmth between Falstaff and Hal, played by Geoffrey Steatfeild. And without a spark of affection between the two men much of the meaning of the play disappears, the insults are merely nasty and the rejection of Falstaff uninteresting and of no emotional significance.

One should always remember that Press Night is not the end and that productions can mature. The RSC is lucky in this respect because it has been the convention to review them in Stratford, then six months later in London and then again if they go on tour.

Both my companion and I thought that Warner was good: more world weary, certainly, than most Falstaffs, and certainly more intelligent - not remotely transferable to the buffoon Falstaff of Merry Wives, but plausible and with excellent comic timing. He is reasonably and convincingly fat. There is a spark between him and Hal, though I rated Geoffrey Streatfeild's performance rather more highly than did my companion who alleged a lack of chemistry or charisma. But she has seen some terrific Hals, including Sam West and Kenneth Branagh.

This is a good production, though a long way from being a great one. I don't know why because this same ensemble was great in all three parts of Henry VI and you will never get a bad performance from such stalwarts as Clive Wood (the King), Geoffrey Freshwater (several) and Richard Cordery (Lord Chief Justice).

Of the younger actors Lex Shrapnel is way too intense and offers far too much body language as Hotspur for my taste and Sianed Jones, though musically the most exciting and exotic Lady Mortimer I have ever heard, mitigates this by having the silliest haircut, which would not be out of place in the US marines.

But why the whole is not better than it is is one of those questions which all theatre directors, cricket captains and football managers wish they could answer. The chief problem may actually be the theatre itself, the Courtyard, well designed for a shack, but too big and therefore not full and lacking atmosphere.

There's a very obvious sporting analogy there, with a lot of the new stadia which have been built by Midlands football clubs. At least with the RSC the condition is temporary as they will return to the Swan and start life in a new main theatre in 2010.

The single most irritating thing about the production is the presence of handguns. It is not a question of anachronism - that doesn't matter at all. It is that the use of handguns alters the whole logic of prowess and honour: as Shakespeare's contemporary (they were alive at the same time for 28 years) Thomas Hobbes pointed out with a handgun a cowardly cripple can shoot the greatest warrior on earth.

Hal seeking out Hotspur for personal combat works only in a world where the sword is the dominant weapon. When Falstaff puts an additional wound into the corpse of Hotspur it is a disgusting moment which challenges our view that the fat knight is essentially benign, but it only works with a sword; popping a toy gun in the direction of the corpse means nothing. I just don't understand why this mistake is made so often.

Whereas the most remarkable feature of the production is that, contrary to almost all my previous experience of the play, Part II is actually a good deal better than Part I. The tavern scene is one of the most atmospheric I have seen and the rustic Gloucestershire dimension is probably the funniest, containing a wonderful collection of cameo interpretations.

Even individual performances seem to go up a gear: Clive Wood really does look as if he is expiring in the king’s deathbed scenes and David Warner becomes even better at communicating his cynical thoughts to the audience with a shrug, a pause and a blank look. Most important of all, Geoffrey Streatfeild seems to grow in stature with his responsibilities, suggesting a Hal who was never truly comfortable as a playboy.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that the house for the performance of Part II that I saw was so thin: I guess around 40%. The problems are pretty obvious: we have had three complete history cycles already this century (including the Complete Works) and the single available theatre is rather large for midweek performances in January unless the production is ecstatically reviewed or contains a megastar. But roll on Henry V - and roll on 2010, when the RSC will have the kind of facilities in Stratford that its management has long wanted.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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