Henry IV Part 1 at the Barbican Centre (RSC) – Review

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Overheard at Moorgate Tube:

When he came on in his leather jacket I thought, ‘this does look a little too modern.’

Oh I do love a good random audience member quote… Perhaps ironically, this lady’s fastidious disapproval for the nuanced modern/early-modern dress was what sets this production of Henry IV apart. Gregory Doran has produced a piece of theatre that feels brilliantly modern – stark blues and yellows and whites in the lighting, modern edge to the costumes, towering slats as a moving back drop – and yet firmly and keenly respectful of the play text.

Part 1 hasn’t been designed alone, however. This aesthetic draws together the RSC Histories (they even have their own glitzy website) which began with David Tennant’s Richard II last year, also directed by Doran and designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Indeed, “Tennant” in a white robe and golden crown haunts the crowing of Henry IV that opens Part 1. So too does the magnificent bespangled curtain backdrop make a reappearance, lit in Richard II like a cathedral but here repurposed to signify the royal court.

This kind of programming litters the RSC’s history but it should be noted that though the English history of Richard II, the two Henry IVs and Henry V lead on in a chronological manner, Shakespeare never designed them to be collected together.
Nor were they written in that order. Part 2 is very much the stand alone play and often considered the weaker of the pair – but of course when you have two plays named as such you “must” produce both. And so we have the whole lot of them…

Back to the production! I must speak in passion, Henry IV Part 1 is my favourite play penned by the Bard. It’s an enigmatic bricolage of court scenes and tavern inequities; battle plans and battles in action. Most of all, it has some of the best belly laugh inducing lines and characterisation of pretty much any early modern play.

And Antony Sher was quite right for the full-bellied, bumptious and bumbling knight, Sir John Falstaff. With a gravelly voice, as though from the years of dalliance and drinking; “sugar and sack”, Sher carries the part with aplomb. Interestingly, however, there was time in the the latter half when his indiscretions began to look culpable and his priorities unsympathetic. The production played a strong, unambiguous turn against Falstaff on the part of Hal, during the king playing scene. Hal (Alex Hassell) announced “I will”, as he rejected the rogue, without a note of jest. This was all set up for Part 2 – directorial decisions coming in to link up the two plays.

The other particularly intriguing interpretation was in the characterisation of Hotspur, played by Trevor White. In the text, the two Harry’s might be brothers, each alike and equally sympathetic. In casting and portrayal, these two Harry’s became in many respects polarised. Hotspur, noticeably shorter, white blonde and with a Northern accent, seemed often like a boisterous and malevolent puppy. He displayed little in manners or eloquence to command the respect that King Henry (Jasper Britton) bestows upon him. Hal, meanwhile, quite the dashing romantic was besmirched with devilish charm and later, majestic and measured diplomacy.

Their fight scene though was a gasp of miraculous zipping clashing heroism. The best sword fight I’ve seen on stage.

Pet peeve was an adequate singer for Lady Mortimer (sorry Nia Gwynne) and an equally inadequate harpist to accompany her (though the backing track, as with the rest of the music, was beautiful). This draw back is probably peculiar to me, as a harpist and a singer.

That left aside, therefore, this production bundles together with particular RSC finesse one of Shakespeare’s finest plays – comic, heroic, playful and nail-biting – and deliberately plays portent to the darker tones of Part 2.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are playing at the Barbican Centre until 29 January 2015. You can read my review of Richard II here.

*I am delighted to be a London Student Ambassador for The RSC. All opinions expressed here are my own and I endeavour to be unbiased.

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