Just in case you're in any doubt, these are two separate plays, rather than a play with an unusual title! However, they are a pair in the sense that the plot from part 1 is picked up and developed in part 2. The first part was written by Shakespeare around 1596/7 and the second part was completed in 1598.
The last time I saw these two plays together was when the National Theatre produced them in 2005. That was an excellent production which set a very high standard for others to follow. But artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and his team at Shakespeare's Globe have proved themselves more than capable of rising to the challenge, producing distinctive versions of the plays which will, I suspect, be remembered for some time to come thanks to a definitive performance by Roger Allam as Falstaff.
The two plays tell the story of Henry IV and his struggles against some of his rebellious subjects. In effect, these plays are about political squabbling – apparently nothing much has changed since the 15th century, the time when these plays are set. Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke) usurped the English throne from Richard II helped along the way by a number of chums among the nobility who, by the time part 1 starts, are getting belligerent because they don't think they've had their fair share of the spoils. Cue insurrection and rebellion involving the English, Welsh as well as the Scots. At the start though, King Henry lacks the support of his eldest son, Prince Hal, who prefers carousing with his drunken pals – including Sir John Falstaff - in Eastcheap. However, when confronted by the King, Hal dutifully joins the battle and the rebels are eventually defeated.
The Globe's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole is in charge for this historical epic that unfolds over the course of six hours (more or less three hours for each part). It's a hugely challenging production to mount for both director and cast alike, and Dromgoole rightly resists the temptation to tinker with the setting, leaving it squarely where it belongs in the 15th century. Dromgoole has subtly achieved the essential balance between the drama of political intrigue at court and on the battlefield, and the humour of the tavern. Dromgoole's seamless creative vision incorporates dance and singing into the theatrical mix, and the result is enjoyable, entertaining and authentic.
Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's great characters. Large in almost every sense, he's a drinker, time waster and liar, and is not averse to resorting to theft when there are easy pickings. In fact, there's not much in him which should make him appealing or likeable, but nevertheless he is. Roger Allam is one of our finest actors and here gives us a first-class, innovative interpretation of Falstaff. The trick in playing Falstaff is to convince us that Sir John has two main character traits. On the one hand, he's intelligently eloquent, while on the other hand he's something of a scoundrel. Though he may appear a buffoon, he's certainly no fool and that's how Allam chooses to play him. Many actors don huge amounts of padding to enlarge their stomachs when playing Falstaff, but Allam uses very little, not because he's in any way corpulent, but he does have the stature to realise a larger-than-life character. And what Falstaff does and says is more important than mere physical characteristics. Allam's comic timing is impeccable, wringing out the last morsel of humour from a line with careful use of pauses.
There's great support from the entire cast – many of whom have several character roles to tackle. Sam Crane is the virile, hot-headed Hotspur, the irrepressible soldier who can barely control his temper, and for whom fighting is almost a way of life – even his vivacious wife (Lorna Stuart) comes a very poor second in his affections. Jamie Parker is Prince Hal, the toff who fools around with the scoundrels at the tavern for amusement, but who nevertheless harbours a desire for power, and is able to drop is low-life friends when he eventually becomes king. And Oliver Cotton is the authoritative King Henry who, in spite of failing health, manages to beat off his foes and eventually achieve reconciliation with his eldest son and successor.
Banners are the dominant feature of Jonathan Fensom's design and adorn the entire theatre, hanging from all the galleries. The banners carry coats of arms of different families and, as far as I could tell, none are duplicated. The rest of the design is relatively minimal employing more banners and wall-hangings to create different scenes. A large, open wooden structure at the back of the stage incorporates stairs to define different levels in the Boar's Head Tavern.
At one stage in part 1, the actors had to do battle with the elements. I don't think I've witnessed such ferocious rain for quite some time and it forced some of the audience in the yard to seek shelter, even those who were sensibly wearing waterproofs. For a while it was hard to hear what the actors were saying as the rain, quite literally, drowned them out. Such is the nature of open air theatre, but at least in my experience it happens relatively rarely, in spite of the adverse reputation which the British weather has acquired. However, the elements didn't bring the performance to a halt, and part two proceeded without impedance.
It's generally recognised by scholars that the second part is the weaker of the two plays. Like sequels in film, it's often the first version which has the strongest vision and the best plot. That certainly seems to me to be the case here not least because there are some odd elements in part two, such as the bizarre recruitment drive which Falstaff conducts in Gloucestershire, and part one has the more impressive combination of humour, political wrangling and battlefield action. However, part two focuses on Falstaff and his wit, and has a darker, more melancholic mood than the first.
Though it takes some endurance to watch both plays in succession, overall, this version of 'Henry IV Parts 1 and 2' is highly enjoyable and immensely watchable particularly because of Roger Allam's thoughtful, compelling and distinctive performance.