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Henry IV, Part One

Henry the Fifth, Part One

Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday, June 2, 2014, "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon," Folger Theatre

Directed by Gregory Doran

Falstaff in gray beard, cream shirt and tan vest with brown pants and black boots holdig a white bottle sits on the edg of a rumpled bed next to Hal, naked except for his briefs
Falstaff (Antony Sher, left) and Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) discuss the time of day in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry IV, Part One, at Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Below, Falstaff recounts the battle of Gads Hill. Photos by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.

Hal has a plan. The Prince of Wales knows that some day as king he might have to lead his country into war or through tough economic times. So, he has embarked on a two-prong strategy: to "command all the good lads in Eastcheap," and to "be more wondered at" among the nobility by "breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle" him. For the whole populous, then, he "shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off."

As William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, opens, Prince Hal is well on his way to achieving the first phase; at the end of the play, he is well on his way to achieving the second. And in the Royal Shakespeare Company's period production of this play at Stratford-upon-Avon, we are well on our way through the three-part history arc of England's great King Henry, fifth of that name, as director Gregory Doran takes an unabashedly textual approach to this play in his aggressive, rambunctiously loud production.

We saw this production via the RSC's Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast at the Folger Theatre, and though it doesn't achieve the rare-air quality of the Doran-helmed Richard II of the winter season, it is a solid entry in the director's intention to stage Shakespeare's entire War of the Roses cycle over the next few years (Doran is also artistic director of the RSC). It and Henry IV, Part Two, are currently playing in repertoire at Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre through the summer; they will then tour England before landing in London at the Barbican for the winter season. RSC will broadcast Part Two to cinemas and theaters in July.

Yes, the title character is Henry IV (an ill-tempered Jasper Britton), trying to move on from his usurpation of Richard II that gnaws at his soul. Yes, in the Folio version of the play, Henry IV shares the title with "the Life and Death of Henry, Surnamed Hotspur" (a gleefully hotheaded Trevor White). Yes, in the six quarto versions of this popular-in-its-own-day play, the two Henrys share the title with "the Humorous Conceits of Sir John Falstaff." And yes, playing Falstaff is the superlative Antony Sher, the production's star attraction.

Yet, in Doran's telling, this is Hal's play, and Alex Hassell takes a firm hold of the reins of his character and rides him surely through the text's seeming inconsistencies, illustrating for us that these are not really inconsistencies but part of the prince's grand plan and products of his personality. This is as bold as it is common sense. George Bernard Shaw tagged Hal as one of Shakespeare's vilest characters, for he comes off as duplicitous and spoiled. Many productions doen't like going down that route, however, presenting Hal as at least ambivalent about his appointed career and perhaps uncertain, antipathetic, or even frightened. Such a Hal yearns for a father's approval, seeking love and succor where he can.

Doran not only has no fear going down the track Shakespeare lays out, he does so without judging Hal, and in Hassell's playing, the prince comes off as heroic, even in his very first appearance in bed with two tavern wenches. As Hassell emerges from the sheets wearing only white boxer shorts, he is the very picture of a man in command of his realm, whatever that realm may be at that time. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis sets this play in medieval England, but Hal is the height of timeless fashion, even looking a bit Elvis in an oxblood-colored leather blazer. Falstaff, meanwhile, looks like an outsized Puss 'n Boots—a most-fat cat. Falstaff, by the way, is in the bed, too, but not part of Hal's menage a trois. He seems to have landed there by accident, but the visual is rife with thematic significance—that old saying about politics making strange bedfellows.

Hal's keynote soliloquy is delivered as nothing more than it is on paper, without any psychological inflections. In fact, it is staged as an appendix to its scene. After Poins has exited Hal's tavern room, the Eastcheap inn disappears and Hassell is left in spotlight on a darkened stage. "I know you all," he says directly to the audience and, like a Richard or Iago, he tells us his plan to "so offend to make offence a skill, redeeming time when men think least I will."

That's pretty clear right there, but he reiterates it, with more specific detail, in his interview with his father, the king. At first Hassell's Hal puts up with his dad's chastisement, but when the king kisses his son's cheeks as he calls him his "near'st and dearest enemy" and accuses him of siding with Harry "Hotspur" Percy, the prince reveals his plan. "Percy is but my factor, good my lord, to engross up glorious deeds on my behalf, and I will call him to so strict account, that he shall render every glory up." Hassell speaks this as if he were describing a corporate stock takeover, and Britton's king nods approvingly. "A hundred thousand rebels die in this," is number crunching more than a father's wish.

With this scene and his soliloquy as textual anchors, Hassell weaves his way through Hal's uneven journey. He approaches the proposed Gads Hill robbery like an undercover cop, trying to appear an avowed thief but taking care that he commit no crime himself. He reveals his disdain for the Eastcheap class with his cruel joke on Francis, which he does so gleefully his bromantic buddy Poins (Sam Marks) is taken aback by this behavior. In the play-acting scene with Falstaff, Hassell gives a straightforward reading of Hal's banishment line, "I do, I will," either knowing it will be unheeded or taken as a joke; or, at this point, it doesn't matter because Hal knows his moment as the sun is fast approaching.

More intriguing is Hal's behavior when the Sheriff shows up and Hal not only covers for Falstaff (this Hal still needs the fat knight in order to keep to his plans), he goes to great lengths to keep Bardolph from being taken off to jail. There's a bit of recasting the lines here to create a moment obviously intended to set up the scene two plays hence when Henry V abandons Bardolph. The future further comes into play in another significant way in this scene: accompanying the Sheriff is the Lord Chief Justice, speaking some of the Sheriff's lines. This is a Doran interpolation, but as we hear so much about Hal striking the King's most senior legal authority in Henry IV, Part Two, we actually see that moment here.

Is Hal taking his act too far? Has tension, fueled by too much sack, sent him momentarily over the edge? Perhaps he's just taking after his father. Britton's King Henry is the most physically aggressive I've ever seen. He gets in the face of Worcester (a serpent-like Antony Byrne) as if he's about to throttle the fomenting rebellion out of the lord. He does throttle Hotspur, grabbing and squeezing his chin as he demands the upstart young Lord Percy to deliver his prisoners. He also drags his own son across the room by the ear.

Poor Hotspur takes a beating in this production. Worcester yanks his hair as added emphasis to his lesson on manners in the Glendower scene. His wife, Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby in a transcendent performance that's both sweet and spirited), slaps him about, too. For all the giddy impetuosity White's Hotspur displays throughout the play—he does a nerdy kickdance when he comes upon Hal in the Battle of Shrewsbury—he gives a rather formal reading to the popinjay speech. It's as if Hotspur himself has memorized these lines and carefully but earnestly recites them to the king instead of speaking his spleen, which he tends to do thereafter.

Falstaff swings his hacked sword arund, the motion obvious in his cloak as he stands leg separated, wearing a small shield in his left hand and an excited in his expression. A tavern wench listens in the background.As for the hand-to-hand combat with Hal, choreographed by Terry King, it is as impressive a stage combat as you will ever see. One reason is that they each use double swords as they blaze back and forth across the stage. But the underlying key to this scene is that this Hal is no underdog or accidental winner; he is Hotspur's equal, if not his better. And why not? Hal's a prince, brought up (at least before his wilding days) with the best training in combat arms. As Hassell plays him, he is so supremely confident in his fighting skills that his entire political strategy is based on defeating Hotspur in battle. As the fight approaches, even those of us familiar with the play eagerly anticipate it as we know it's going to be, if not the Thrilla in Manila, then the Shocker of Shropshire.

And then there's Falstaff. If this paragraph seems obligatory, it's evidence of how much intrigue Doran infuses in the Three Henrys' storyline, which was Shakespeare's initial intent with this play: Shakespeare just created a character that can take over most productions. Sher, for all his stellar acting skills and ability to so completely envelop himself in the characters he plays, doesn't quite take over the play except when Falstaff himself does so. His enthusiastic acting out of his version of the Gads Hill assaults is a theatrical treat. However, Sher does bring some insightful moments to this iconic character. I never noticed before that three times Falstaff promises to repent his ways and, specifically, give up sack. He ultimately doesn't, but Sher plays these moments with sincerity, and the third time is especially poignant. It comes as he stakes claim to killing Hotspur and looks to be rewarded. "If I do grow great again, I'll grow less, for I'll purge and leave sack, and live cleanly as a nobleman should do," Falstaff says, and Sher intones the first phrase to make clear that at one point Falstaff was held in high regard; sack, and maybe even Hal (as he claims earlier in the play and again in Part Two), are the cause of his degeneration.

On the other hand, Sher doesn't do anything with Falstaff's most enigmatic moment; in fact, he shares that moment with the rest of the cast. "Banish not him thy Harry's company," he says at the end of the play-acting scene, and then he gestures the rest of the tavern company to repeat the phrase after him. Sher, an actor who has accomplished iconic portrayals of such iconic characters as Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth, turns Shakespeare's most iconic role into a true ensemble player, all in the service of the great King Henry's ascension, fifth of that name.

Eric Minton
June 6, 2014

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