Backbiting, political squabbling, unruly and dangerous men struggling for influence and power - ring any bells? Well, at the rump end of a general election here in the UK (5th May), it should. But the bickering and squabbling I’m referring to is that of the civil wars in England during the late 14th and early 15th centuries between various influential families – most of whom were interrelated and pals at one time or another.
The background is that Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke) usurped the English throne from Richard II aided and abetted by some of his chums. As happens with many alliances, these same pals soon decide that their new King’s not sharing the spoils – or maybe they just didn’t have enough to occupy their time. Either way, civil war breaks out all over the place – the Welsh and Scots are involved, and the French (as was so often the case at the time) are waiting on the touch line to join in the ‘game’.
In Henry IV part 1, King Henry (played by David Bradley) has just got (or should that be ‘stolen’?) the crown of England and is feeling suitably insecure and guilt-ridden. To appease his Maker, he intends a trip to the Holy Land – for another scrap, of course. However, all is not rosy in the Kingdom and his ‘vacation’ has to be postponed while he deals with the mischievous Dukes, Earls and other titled gentry. Although he’s got 4 sons, the eldest, the Prince of Wales, has fallen in with a rather low class mob in Eastcheap led by the eloquent but impecunious drunkard and lecher Sir John Falstaff (played by Michael Gambon). The remainder of part 1 charts the course of the rebellion and culminates in the defeat of one group of the rebels thanks to Henry’s attemps to persuade his eldest son to take more responsibility and join the action. The Prince dutifully falls in line, and terminates ‘Hotspur’ one of the leading protagonists (and son of the Earl of Northumberland) in battle.
Part 2 takes up the story, and sees the fray being joined by the Archbishop of York, and the Earl of Northumberland, who is in despair at the loss of his son. Meanwhile, back in London, Prince Harry is back in Eastcheap. But having tasted a bit of the royal ‘good life’, is not so enamoured with his lecherous mates. Falstaff is sent on a bizarre recruitment drive, the remaining rebels are easily duped out of fighting, and King Henry dies in his bed after making amends with his eldest son.
On a simple level, you could say it’s all about mates falling out. On the other hand, it’s also about order and chaos, as well as the sacrifices that have to be paid if order – or a bit of ‘peace’ - is to prevail.
This National Theatre production of both parts of Henry IV on a single day was an experience I really wasn’t relishing. Although the high quality of productions at the National is always an attraction, my introduction to the Henry IV plays at school was, to say the least, uninspiring, and has stuck in my mind ever since. Still, I needn’t have worried because Nicholas Hytner’s production is formidable, meticulous and quite inspired.
Playing in the suitably cavernous Oliver Theatre, Mark Thompson’s brilliantly designed set has a huge area of planking where much of the action takes place. Dead trees surround it and are symbolically cut down at the end of part 2 when the new king, Henry V, is crowned. Clouds, stained glass windows and mountains are back projected on to screens at the rear of the set, while tapestries and chandeliers are lowered from above as required. For much of the time, smoke rises from the set, creating a fog of war and misery over the battle-fatigued country.
Hytner cleverly produces two quite distinct plays. Part 1 is more action packed and almost vibrant in a way. But part 2 is much more melancholic with a deep sense that change is in the air, and not only for the nobles – nothing is ever the same again for anyone.
Michael Gambon is quite superb as Sir John Falstaff, and completely captures the audience’s affections from the start. There’s a marked contrast in Gambon’s performance in the two parts. Jovial and relatively agile in part 1, he becomes more melancholic and aged by the end of part 2. It’s a genuine and effective transition because Falstaff knows he’s seen the best of his days and fears his decline.
But Gambon’s performance is not the only excellent characterisation in this polished production. David Bradley delivers a very fine, gaunt and guilt-ridden portrayal as King Henry IV, and Matthew Macfadyen (Prince of Wales) is fresh, confident and energetic as the Prince of Wales.
In part 2, John Wood’s performance as Justice Shallow was excellent and very funny. At several points he really did have the audience ‘eating out of his hand’. But Adrian Scarborough, as the corpse-like and decrepit Justice Silence, ably assisted and supported him.
Whatever you think of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s certainly worth seeing this fine production of the two parts of Henry IV. I doubt that the result of the general election will be anywhere near as entertaining or enjoyable, but we will all have to suffer the consequences for a good deal longer.
What other critics had to say.....
ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Nicholas Hytner's new National Theatre production isn't perfect, but I've encountered none so interesting." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Even if Michael Gambon doesn't quite turn out to be the Falstaff of one's dreams, Nicholas Hytner's production of our great national epic is as socially detailed and emotionally moving as one had hoped." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, Superb new production in the Olivier...captures both the epic scale of this dramatic diptych.." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Didn’t always light my mental and emotional fires... Hytner’s revival moves at a bold, impressive pace."