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Review of the RSC Henry IV at the Barbican

RSC Henry IV at the Barbican Experiencing the Royal Shakespeare’s epic production of the Bard’s play Henry IV is a must for serious theatre fans.

Each of the two parts is a fairly substantial 3 hour evening in its own right but see them over two nights (or all together over a matinee and an evening as I did) and they bring a sprawling sweep of English history to vivid and captivating life.

Henry IV is a troubled man. He stole the crown (rightly or wrongly) from Richard II and ever since the country has been erupting in little pockets of rebellion, exhausting him and driving him to long for a crusade that will assuage his guilt before God. On top of all that his eldest son, Hal is a lazy, drunken, letcher who hangs out in brothels with a debauched old knight called Falstaff. A big contrast with the warrior son of his enemy, who’s negotiating with other war lords to support a coup. The ensuing battles sober everyone including Falstaff who has to earn a living recruiting soldiers, or rather extracting bribes for letting them go, whilst dodging his whores and his creditors.

Unexpectedly Hal turns out to be a better man than his father dared hope and Part 2 chronicles Falstaff’s misadventures as he travels the country looking for prospective soldiers whilst the prince learns the art of kingship and decides whether to retain his old crew or make his dad proud.

You’ll meet a host of colourful characters including a welsh would-be wizard, a dim-witted hothead of a lord, an enterprising brothel keeper and most delightful of all a country magistrate who’s rambling reminiscences of a misspent youth contrast amusingly with his doddery old age. The array of types presented have lead some critics to declare these plays are Shakespeare’s finest achievement, so satisfyingly does he capture every class of English folk from kings to pot boys.

Falstaff was one of Shakespeare’s most popular comic creations. He behaves in a way we’d all love to if we weren’t constrained by responsibilities and a moral code. He indulges in an excess of all earthly pleasures and lies, cheats and sucks up to his better with no sense of shame or remorse. He is exactly the kind of bad influence we all learn to turn away from as part of growing up. The souring of Hal’s love for him is so moving because we’ve all made that break with our past to some extent, the figure of Falstaff embodies the fun we’ll never have again. As played magnificently by Sir Anthony Sher, he’s bloated and revolting whilst at the same time he utterly captivates with every step he waddles, casual cruelty he commits and lie he drunkenly slurs.

The evening is at its most engaging when Falstaff is present, otherwise the long scenes with middle aged men standing around being a bit cross about a rather impenetrable constitutional crisis can drag. However Hal is such a fascinating young man, and very easy on the eye as played by sexy Alex Hassell, that he’ll steel your heart whether he’s playing a stupid practical joke down the pub or misjudging the situation at his father’s death bed.

The title role of Henry IV is rather a thankless one as it merely requires the actor to express fifty shades of gloom. Jasper Britton, one of our most charismatic stage actors gets rather lost behind the wig and facial hair, unable to make much of an impression.

Do grab this chance to see British Theatre at its best and Sir Anthony Sher and our national playwright on top form.

There are very few female characters and they’re not much more then bit parts – Shakespeare’s interest in capturing a moment in England’s history didn’t extend to thinking about its women then! – but Paola Dionisotti makes a strong impression as a dotty brothel keeper in love with Falstaff. The small part players also include the always watchable Robin Hooper and, what a treat, the magnificent Oliver Ford Davies. He's in very few scenes as the old judge yet makes them a highlight of the evening.

It’s all designed by Stephen Brimstone Lewis in beige, so that set and costumes are so simple and tastefully traditional that they barely make any impression. There are a few walkways around the edges of the bare, open stage that look like the woodwork at the Globe but which barely anyone uses. Maybe they’re unsafe.

Anyway, safe though director Gregory Doran’s production is, we can be thankful that it presents Shakespeare’s extraordinary vision uncluttered by distractions, allowing some of our finest actors to shine.

Do grab this chance to see British Theatre at its best and Sir Anthony Sher and our national playwright on top form.

Henry IV (part 1)

Henry IV (part 2)