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Archive: Henry IV

For the Archive, we file reviews of several past London productions of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

RSC 2001 - Regent's Park 2004 - NT 2005 - RSC 2008 - Donmar 2014 - RSC 2014 - Donmar 2016

Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2
Barbican Theatre Spring 2001

The Royal Shakespeare Company continues its grand project of the eight history plays with this clean and clear, if not especially deep version of the second and third in the cycle.

The story so far: having taken the throne from Richard II, Henry finds himself embroiled in a series of revolts by his former supporters and in problems with his son, the future Henry V, here called Hal. Taking off from scattered historical references to an estrangement between King and Prince, Shakespeare invents a whole psychological drama centred on Hal. Finding his father cold and distant, Hal immerses himself in the earthy petty-criminal world of London's East End, in a group led by the fat, drunken debauchee Falstaff.

Most critics agree that Hal uses his Falstaff period to get the warmth his father lacks, and to develop his own humanity more fully, so that he can mature during the course of these two plays into the hero-king Henry V.

Director Michael Attenborough and actor William Houston have chosen rather to play Hal as fully formed from the start, merely enjoying his youth while he can, before proving himself in the civil wars and inheriting the throne. Shakespeare does provide lines to support this reading, but it takes a lot of the psychological drama out of the two plays. Houston's Hal is a static figure, no different at the end than he was at the start, just more publicly so.

Without that growth, and without a sense of Hal being torn between the public demands represented by his father and the personal indulgence represented by Falstaff, the two plays lack a dramatic arc and threaten to collapse into a series of set pieces.

(It doesn't help that Part 2 is one of Shakespeare's weakest works, the only one that really plays like a sequel, dutifully reprising popular situations and scenes from Part I. So we get a couple of perfunctory scenes in the London tavern, and a couple of preparing-for-battle scenes, and so on, and it's hard to escape a feeling of tired recycling. It's his Rocky II.)

Desmond Barrit may be the only actor not to have to pad himself up to play the fat knight, but he is a curiously unjolly Falstaff. As self-indulgent as he is, he seems haunted by self-awareness, a knowledge of his own pettiness made bearable only be the cynical assumption that the rest of humanity is just as corrupt, or would be if it had any sense.

One fact about this Falstaff is unmistakable - he does love Hal with a father's pride and passion, and when the newly-crowned Henry V rejects him in Part 2's climax, the old man is destroyed.

In Richard II, David Troughton played Henry as a bluff soldier who stumbled into the kingship; here, he is a basically decent man who has been forced to learn power politics so quickly that it is all he can think about. Other actors have played Henry as cold and distant; Troughton makes him more a distracted workaholic. In his two most intimate moments with his son, one in each play, he just can't take his mind off the business of kingship, and all he can offer is banal practical advice in manipulating public opinion.

The only other character who registers is Hotspur, son of the rebel leader and a foil to Hal. Adam Levy plays him as an overgrown boy to whom war is a grand adventure, giving his scenes a bright energy that much of the play lacks.

I remain committed to the assumption that the eight-play cycle is an opportunity not to be missed. I suspect, though, that these two (particularly Part 2) will be the heaviest going in the marathon.

Gerald Berkowitz

Henry IV Part 1
Open Air Theatre Summer 2004

Along with the perennial Midsummer Night's Dream, this always-pleasant Shakespeare-in-the-Park theatre takes on an unusually weighty choice for 2004, and director Alan Strachan pulls it off simply by ignoring all the potential for extra weightiness in the play.

This is Henry IV played as if it were A Midsummer Night's Dream, all surface and simplicity, with attractive characters triumphing over not-terribly-threatening dangers. It has none of the in-depth psychology or sociopolitical overtones you might get from the Royal Shakespeare Company, but on the other hand it's a lot easier to sit through than many RSC productions.

Quick reminder of the plot: having stolen the throne from Richard II, Henry IV is now faced with a  rebellion by the very lords who supported him. But his son Prince Hal spends his days and nights among the fleshpots of East London, in the company of that incorrigible old rogue Falstaff. Will Hal get his act together in time to help his father defeat the rebels?

Of course he will, though along the way most directors search out a play about a young man sowing his wild oats, torn between his cold and responsible father and Falstaff's amoral warmth. Wisely judging his audience, Strachan ignores all that, and so we get a fast-moving, always clear and simply not terribly deep romp through both mild debauchery and some swashbuckling heroism.

It's just what you want on a balmy summer night (and yes, London does have them, though a jacket and umbrella might be wise precautions).

The price for this easy entertainment is characterisation. While all the young people in the play - Hal (Jordan Frieda), his buddy Poins (Mark Hilton), his rebel counterpart Hotspur (Keith Dunphy), Hotspur's wife (Annette McLaughlin) and the others - are presented as attractive young people, they're all pretty one-dimensional.

This is particularly true of Frieda, who is the most invisible Hal I've ever encountered, hardly present in any of his scenes. (I hasten to repeat that this is clearly a directorial decision).

It is the older generation that takes over the play. There's no surprise in having Falstaff walk away with all his scenes, though veteran clown Christopher Benjamin does it in a new and enjoyable way, by playing him almost like a stand-up comic of the Bernard Manning school (Americans, think Buddy Hackett or Don Rickles), the incorrigibly politically incorrect jokester who's so funny that he overpowers any resistance.

And Christopher Godwin is a stronger, more dynamic King than you're likely to have seen before (The role is usually played as sickly or emotionally frozen), which makes all his scenes fresh and exciting to watch.

Those familiar with the play will almost certainly have seen more thought-provoking or emotionally involving productions, but the most jaded Shakespearean is not likely to have seen one that plays so cleanly, clearly and entertainingly.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2005

Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 is a much superior play to Henry IV Part 2. The National Theatre's new production of Part 2 is much superior to its Part 1. Make of that what you will.

(A reminder: Having deposed Richard II, King Henry now finds the same nobles who supported him mounting a rebellion. Meanwhile his son - here called Hal - spends his time in the fleshpots of London, in the company of the debauched old knight Falstaff. Eventually Hal gets his act together, fights the rebels, is reconciled with his father and, at Henry's death, becomes Henry V.)

What makes the first play superior are the indications that Hal is drawn to Falstaff for a warmth and liveliness his cold all-business father doesn't provide, and that the experience helps hin grow into a better man and better king. And it is exactly that richness of characterisation that director Nicholas Hytner seems almost deliberately to have cut out of the play.

There is little indication that Matthew Macfadyen's Hal gets anything out of his adventures in Eastcheap. He's clearly just a tourist, observing and being mildly amused without being involved, and he leaves Falstaff and the others to go fight the rebels with no more than the Shakespearean equivalent of glancing at his watch and realizing he's late to work.

You get far more of a sense of Falstaff's love for Hal, and of some deep emotional need this son-figure has for him, but Michael Gambon's Falstaff is otherwise just as muted. Falstaff is normally seen and played as a larger-than-life figure, a rogue of such shameless excess as to be virtually a life force, while some actors also find a chilling underlayer of cruelty in his self-gratification.

But Gambon chooses to underplay all Falstaff's qualities. Yes, the man is fat, and debauched, and a liar, and he has a genuine affection for Hal. But all of these are life-sized, and newcomers might wonder what there is about the character that has made him mythic.

Gambon also tends to shout through his pasted-on beard in a way that makes far too much of his dialogue barely intelligible. (Though, to be fair, during the interval I overheard several people complaining that they couldn't understand anyone, and this might be the sudden return of the acoustic problems that cursed the Olivier for years.)

The general absence of the larger-than-life runs through the whole first play, particularly in the first hour or so, in which far too many scenes are directed as static, with actors just standing in a row speechifying at each other. One exception is David Bradley's Henry, who is not as cold as most Henries, but gives a real sense of the father loving and missing his wayward son. A particular victim of the general pattern is David Harewood's Hotspur (the rebel counterpart to Hal), who is not allowed to show much vitality until the battle scenes.

Like most sequels, Part 2 sometimes plays like out-takes from Part 1. The first play had a sequence in which Hal and his buddy Poins tricked Falstaff, so the second has one. The first had preparations for battle, and so does the second. The first had a reconciliation scene for Henry and Hal, and so the second has to invent a conflict to allow for another (admittedly much better) one. And so on.

Hal is actually kept offstage through most of the play, as Shakespeare seems rather frantically to be looking for comic business to build around Falstaff. A scene in which the innkeeper Mistress Quickly is upset because she loves the fat knight goes nowhere, and in the next scene she is smiling benignly as he flirts with Doll Tearsheet. The roisterer Pistol is brought in to liven up a scene and then all but forgotten. This play's Hal-Poins practical joke is dropped without paying off.

The Falstaff sequence that does work is his trip to the countryside and reunion with an old friend, the slightly befuddled Justice Shallow, and John Wood makes the most of what amounts to an extended cameo role, with Adrian Scarborough repeatedly scene-stealing as the even more addled Justice Silence. Interestingly, director Hytner doesn't play these comic scenes for the elegiac old-men-remembering-their-youth quality they usually have, and there's more of that bittersweet sense in Falstaff's earlier scene with Doll.

Elsewhere, though - that is to say, in the second play's non-Falstaff scenes - Hytner gets more out of the material than any other production I've seen. There are strong and moving scenes for Jeffery Kissoon as Hotspur's father, Naomi Frederick as his widow and Iain Mitchell as the Lord Chief Justice.

And when Hal finally returns to the play, for his big scene with the dying Henry, both Matthew Macfadyen and David Bradley come into their own, for the most involving and moving sequence of either play.

Gerald Berkowitz

Henry IV, Parts I and II
Roundhouse Spring 2008

The RSC continues its history cycle with the two plays devoted to Henry IV, brought to life by several attractive performances though offering little that is original or idiosyncratic in interpretation.

The story so far - after taking the throne from Richard II, King Henry must deal with a rebellion from the same nobles who supported him. Meanwhile, his son Hal enjoys himself among the thieves and whores of London, especially the debauched old knight Falstaff.

Hal gets his act together in the first play, helps defeat the rebels and then, after a bit of backsliding, is reconciled with his father before Henry's death, becomes king and finally rejects Falstaff and all he represented.

Part One is by far the stronger play, and first among its strengths is David Warner's Falstaff, as jolly an old rogue as you could hope for but with more authority than most, so you don't really feel that Hal gets nothing from his company and so his infamous speech denouncing the Honour other men fight and die for comes across as good common sense and not the rationalisations of a coward.

The only thing I've found in other Falstaffs and miss here is a sense of real love between him and Hal. Even at the end of Part II, when the new King rejects him, you see only disappointed ambition, not a broken heart.

Geoffrey Streatfeild's Hal is himself a merry young soul, clearly engaged in nothing more sinister than the innocent enjoyment of irresponsible youth, and even his early speech about only doing this so his eventual appearance as a responsible adult will be all the more impressive sounds like a jolly jape rather than machiavellianism. And so his evolution into military hero and then dedicated ruler is appealing to watch.

Clive Wood's King remains the bluff soldier we met in Richard II, whose instinct is to give Hal a cuff in the ear rather than lecture him. But, as we saw in the earlier play, he is also astute, and his tough love turns out to be exactly what Hal needs, the King's praise of the rebel Hotspur making Hal jealous enough to go out and fight.

Lex Shrapnel is an attractive Hotspur, for whom war is a Boys' Own Adventure, and there are strong performances from Keith Bartlett as Percy, Roger Watkins as Glendower and Maureen Beattie as Mistress Quickly.

Indeed, this is a production that loves everyone in it, embracing honour, good will and even open roguery equally and without judgement.

Like many sequels, Part Two is a much weaker play, seeming at times to be made up of outtakes from Part One.

What's left of the rebels regroup and have to be put down again, Hal and his buddy Poins play another trick on Falstaff, and the King once again wonders where his errant son has gone - but too much of it just feels like time-filler.

Part of the problem is that some of the most attractive characters from Part One have been killed off so that, for example, we can't get too involved with the faceless rebels. Oddly, Shakespeare sends Hal himself offstage for most of the middle third of the play (Did he need the actor to double a different role?), scenes that you might expect to be Hal's given to his brother Prince John, with actor Chris McGill making the most of those opportunities.

Meanwhile, Falstaff is sent into the country, where the famous encounter with Justice Shallow and Justice Silence is directed and played, by Geoffrey Freshwater and Sandy Neilson, somewhat less elegiacly and autumnal than usual, retaining the comedy but losing some of the sweetness veterans of the play might expect.

Credits list Michael Boyd as director of Part One, with Richard Twyman as associate director, the credits reversed for Part Two. Whatever seams that might imply certainly don't show, and if this production may not illuminate the texts in any new ways, it avoids gimmickry and provides a solid setting for the central performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

Henry IV 
Donmar Warehouse Theatre  Autumn-Winter 2014

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare production is a little slow warming up, but bear with some awkward opening scenes because once it hits its stride it's a strong and engrossing race through the text that, not incidentally, succeeds in erasing all thoughts of the performers' gender. 

As she did with Julius Caesar last season, Lloyd explains the casting by making the play an amateur production within a women's prison. 

As I wrote about Caesar, I can't help feeling that this betrays a certain lack of confidence in her concept, as if she feared the audience couldn't take an all-female cast without a fictional justification. But Lloyd does make more use of the frame this time around. 

The Donmar audience is assembled at another site across the road and led by prison guards up a back stairwell painted, as is the whole theatre, in Depressing Institutional Grey. 

For the first few scenes the actresses are clearly playing amateurs playing Shakespeare Ashley McGuire is wooden and tentative as Falstaff, Clare Dunne overacting as Hal, Harriet Walter clearly a bored godfather as the King. 

Fortunately this conceit is dropped pretty quickly as the prisoners get caught up in their roles and brought back only a couple of times (in the production's least convincing moments) when prisoner personalities briefly resurface. 

So for the most of the evening we get an intelligent, involving and fast-moving condensation of Shakespeare's six-plus hours down to two, largely by tacking the final scenes of Henry IV Part Two onto a quick version of Part One. 

The textual trimming reduces Henry's role, always a fairly small one, down to little more than a cameo part for Harriet Walter, who strides through it with quiet dignity. 

Claire Dunne's Hal is not particularly convincing as the wild youth, but deepens as the character matures. Ashley McGuire slowly grows on you as Falstaff, while Jade Anouka's Hotspur and Ann Ogbomo's Worcester are fully formed and convincing from the start.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Henry IV Parts I and II 
Barbican Theatre  Winter 2014-2015

The Royal Shakespeare Company's two-play transfer from Stratford is built around the casting of Antony Sher as Falstaff. But, as fine as Sher is, he is not the centre of the shows or the most interesting thing in them. 

A reminder: the two plays are less about the titular king than his son Hal, the future Henry V. Hal spends much of both plays in London's slums enjoying the company of the dissolute but magnetic Falstaff, while the King faces rebellious nobles. 

Hal gets his act together, helps defeat the rebels, relapses a bit, and eventually matures, reconciles with his dying father, and becomes King. 

And here is where director Gregory Doran either deliberately or fortuitously uncovers something fresh in this drama. The usual interpretation, at least of Part I, is that Hal, estranged from his cold father, finds a warm surrogate father in Falstaff, but one he must eventually outgrow to rejoin the King's world of responsibility. 

But by encouraging (or allowing) Antony Sher to play Falstaff just for the bluff comedy and very well Doran leaves little opportunity for a sense of the warmth and love between Falstaff and Alex Hassell's Hal. 

And if the play is not about Falstaff and Hal, then it is not about Hal. 

Factor in a very strong performance by Trevor White as Hotspur, hotheaded member of the rebel forces, and Part One becomes The Tragedy Of Hotspur. 

A whole new play hitherto hidden within Shakespeare's text, The Tragedy Of Hotspur follows the young man nearly exploding with vital energy that his father and uncle constantly have to clamp down until he is finally let joyously loose on the battlefield, only to encounter the newly-reformed Hal with the inevitable result. 

You might think that it destroys a play if we find ourselves more emotionally involved with the antagonist than the supposed hero, but in fact it enriches it. We don't lose sight of Hal, but discover (once again) the extent of Shakespeare's greatness, that there is always more there waiting to be found. 

For that reason, while anybody can enjoy this staging of Part I, I would particularly recommend it to those familiar with the play, who can relish its revelations.

Part II is another matter. It always feels too much like out-takes from Part I, and director Doran hasn't conquered that spectre of deja vu

Once again Hal returns to Eastcheap, once again he and his pal Poins play a trick on Falstaff, once again Falstaff wittily talks his way out of it, once again the rebels amass against the King, once again they're defeated (this time by a particularly dishonourable trick by the good guys). 

Just as movies with a II in their title tend to go over the same crowd-pleasing ground as the first, with diminishing returns, you can't escape the sense that you're getting B-level material here when the A-level stuff all went into Part I. 

The Eastcheap sequences are interminable and unfunny, despite the comic energy injected by Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly, and the rebellion sequences sorely miss Hotspur's energy. 

The evening is salvaged somewhat by the warmly comic scenes in which Falstaff is reunited with a friend from his youth and the old men reminisce ('We have heard the chimes at midnight'), largely through the contribution of the ever-reliable Oliver Ford Davies. 

The reconciliation between Alex Hassell's Hal and Jasper Britton's Henry is moving, but the new King's rejection of Falstaff doesn't work just because the emotional connection between them was never established. 

With each play running close to three hours, only the most dedicated will want to see both. Choose Part I and you will find much to entertain and even a little to move you.

Gerald Berkowitz

Henry IV 
Donmar at King's Cross Theatre  Autumn 2016

Phyllida Lloyd's 2014 all-female Donmar production of Henry IV is revived, to play a short repertory season in a temporary theatre behind King's Cross Station along with her 2012 Julius Caesar and a new Tempest, with the same partly new cast in all three and the same staging concept. 

As with the othersr, director Lloyd sets the production in a women's prison, implying that the prisoners' condition gives them special insight into their Shakespearean characters. 

But as with the others, the resonances, which may help the actresses, are largely invisible to the audience, and the gimmick is more intrusive than enlightening.

Modern dress and interpolated modern references are weak jokes, though staging the battle scenes as stylised and choreographed kick-boxing duels is inventive and attractive. 

That, and a moment when the teasing of Doll blends with prisoner antagonisms and gets out of control, are just about the only crossover ideas to seem worth the trouble. 

Cutting two Shakespeare plays down to two hours involves a raced-through version of Part One capped by the final scenes Henry's death and Hal's rejection of Falstaff from Part Two. 

King Henry is actually peripheral in the Shakespeare plays, which are more interested in his son, and the editing here reduces Harriet Walter's King to little more than a two-or-thee-scene cameo. 

At the start her characterisation is clearly modelled on Marlon Brando's Godfather, though she has little opportunity to do much beyond that. 

Sophie Stanton's Falstaff is generally less extreme in fat or debauchery, and more intelligent and self-aware than most, allowing us to see his attractiveness to Hal as a guide to loosening up and enjoying himself. 

Once the early Falstaff-based comic scenes are over, the text editing and direction put the focus on the Hal-Hotspur contrasts and competition. Clare Dunne's Hal is clearly just taking the safely self-indulgent equivalent of a gap year in Eastcheap, so we are ready and not particularly surprised when he shapes up into a solid hero.

Jade Anouka makes Hotspur's hot-headedness boyishly attractive, though she misses some of his playfulness, his departure from his wife darker than you might expect. But that gives Sheila Atim the opportunity to give Lady Percy more depth and power, and it is her pain and anger that dominate their scene. 

Leah Harvey invests The Douglas with an attractively feisty energy that threatens to steal scenes from Hal, Hotspur and everyone else. 

As with the other two plays in this repertory season, my advice is to ignore the prison frame as much as possible and enjoy a stripped-down fast-moving skim across the surface of Shakespeare's play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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