'Player Kings' review — Ian McKellen is a revelatory Falstaff in this epic historical drama

Read our review of Player Kings, adapted by Robert Icke from Shakespeare's Henry IV, now in performances at the Noel Coward Theatre to 22 June.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

What an extraordinary enterprise this is. Robert Icke has taken Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays (hardly a natural for commercial staging) and fused them into an epic thriller that looks set to be this year’s boldest West End hit. Of course, Player Kings has a mighty talent helping to tip the scales: the 84-year-old Ian McKellen inhabiting another knight of the realm, Falstaff.

It’s a typically spry adaptation by Icke, streamlining these baggy history plays into three hours and 40 minutes. Impressively, you really don’t feel the length, especially in the propulsive first half, which is like bingeing a moreish Netflix drama.

It’s also a lucid telling of a knotty story, completely accessible for an audience drawn here by McKellen or perhaps by Ted Lasso star Toheeb Jimoh, who follows up his superb Romeo for the Almeida with a passionate reading of Prince Hal. Surtitles help recap events at the start, and give us both basic facts (locations) and thought-provoking ones – like a sobering reminder that 10,000 men die in the climactic battle.

We essentially follow three camps: the anxious King Henry IV, who recently deposed Richard II, and his court; the Northern nobles, among them the laser-focussed soldier Hotspur, who decide to rebel against him; and the AWOL heir to the throne, Hal, who spends his time drinking, thieving and coke-snorting with Falstaff’s gang of reprobates in Eastcheap.

Icke’s modern-dress staging makes this a tightly focussed character study. Richard Coyle’s pained King is easily relatable as the stressed father who can’t get through to his son, as is Jimoh’s Hal, who lashes out because he feels trapped and unworthy of the daunting task ahead. He’s like a wasp caught in a jar, constantly banging against the glass sides.

One tavern scene, usually a comic set-piece, is particularly charged: Hal and Falstaff playacting as the prince and his father. There’s a viciousness to their jibes – neither McKellen nor Jimoh play this as a cuddly bond – but it’s when Hal, as the King, lays into himself that it really cuts deep, his self-loathing writ large.

Icke also emphasises the comparisons made between Hal and Hotspur, adding to the plays’ sharp reading of fractious father/son relationships. Of course, when you have an ailing monarch and an estranged son named Harry, their modern counterparts come to mind too.

Coyle is excellent here, as are Samuel Edward-Cook as Hotspur, Clare Perkins as Mistress Quickley, Joseph Mydell as the Chief Justice, Geoffrey Freshwater as Bardolph, Robin Soans as Justice Shallow, and Annette McLaughlin as a gender-swapped Warwick.

But the evening really belongs to McKellen, who makes not just a meal but a nine-course banquet out of his fat-suited Falstaff. It’s a revelatory and physically rich performance: he snorts and wheezes around the lines, or delivers them through slurps and munching; and, as a calculating chancer, either uses his frailty to his advantage, or suddenly shows his strength through savage violence.

It’s a compelling portrait of a man raging against the dying of the light. He scoffs at the notion of “honour”: such men die long before their time. McKellen makes “Discretion is the better part of valour” a cynical mission statement.

But though he might extol friendship or cloak himself in patriotism (including a hilarious scene where he passes himself off as a medal-clad war hero), you’re always aware that he’s out for himself. We might chuckle at his wit and gift of the gab, but this Falstaff doesn’t hesitate to wrench a ring off a corpse’s finger.

Mortality crops up again and again, with Icke referencing the King’s ill health throughout (and there’s another contemporary parallel as the palace tries to keep it quiet). So too does the question of what it takes to lead: military might, virtue, honour, cunning, deceit, or some tricky combination?

Countertenor Henry Jenkinson stalks the action with his spine-tingling renditions of charged anthems like “Jerusalem”. It further complicates that ideal of nationhood – the misty dream of Blitz Spirit, Brexit, or indeed the heroic Henry V. Long may Icke, and McKellen, reign.

Player Kings is at the Noel Coward Theatre to 22 June. Book Player Kings tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Player Kings (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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