Henry IV Parts I and II

Several months after Richard II, the first play in the RSC’s ambitious plan to stage every one of Shakespeare’s works over the next few years, comes the duo of Henry IV Parts I and II. Save for Henry VIII, they were the only two Shakespeare plays I hadn’t seen, so I would have made a beeline for Stratford upon Avon even if I hadn’t already decided that I wanted to see every production in this project.

I made a weekend of it, staying overnight in a B&B, and enjoyed a matinee performance of Part I and an evening performance of Part II. Seen for the first time on stage (I saw the BBC’s excellent The Hollow Crown last year), the plays as a whole were a revelation, a gripping historical drama centred around one character’s development and growth into a king who, in Shakespeare’s time, was seen as one of England’s greatest.

For the protagonist isn’t Henry IV, really: it is his son, Prince Hal, later Henry V. Even though the first Lancastrian king is the first character on stage, wringing his hands and hoping to assuage his guilt over Richard II’s murder by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it’s his son we are interested in and who we root for. Alex Hassell gives a strong performance as the youthful, exuberant, careless heir who favours drinking and whoring in taverns to dealing with the serious business of state, but who must grow up, take responsibility and learn to lead as a king. As his father, Jasper Britton is much more serious, exploding in anger as he admonishes his wayward son. One of the most interesting aspects of Part I is the contrast between the father-and-son relationships: Henry and Hal on the one hand, and Northumberland and Hotspur on the other. Not to mention the king’s implied wish that his own son was more like Northumberland’s warrior heir – at least, that is, until Prince Hal defeats Harry Hotspur – a lively, hot-headed Trevor White – on the battlefield.

The most memorable, powerful performance, though, comes from Antony Sher, who is outstanding as Falstaff. He thoroughly captures his charm and jolly nature, his lust for life and role as something of a second father to Hal, but he also brings out his cruelty, his selfishness and his cowardice. When reading the play I was struck by the cruelty I thought the newly crowned Henry V displayed when refusing to acknowledge his old friend – but in this production I viewed his actions more sympathetically, as they were fuelled by his growing awareness of Falstaff’s shortcomings.

As individual plays, I felt Part I was the better of the two, and could really be seen as a standalone piece. The second part felt less coherent, and lacked a unifying story arc such as we get in Part I with Hotspur’s rebellion. That said, it was rewarding to focus on Sher’s superb performance as Falstaff, and the scenes in Gloucestershire, with their knowing comedy, were a delight.

It strikes me that you could perhaps see these plays as the first two parts of a trilogy culminating with Henry V. It will be interesting to see director Gregory Doran’s take on the latter play when it is performed (as is rumoured) next year. In the meantime, I will continue to think about these wonderful productions – and hope that somebody finally puts on Henry VIII so I can finish off my list.

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