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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HENRY IV PARTS ONE AND TWO
at the Barbican

NATION IN TURMOIL
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Jasper Britton and Alex Hassell/ Ph: Kwame Lestrade

The Barbican Theatre, built to the specifications of the Royal Shakespeare Company within the Barbican Centre, opened in June 1982 with both parts of Henry IV. Twenty years later, in a mistake that the board has never fully explained, the company abandoned their London home and eventually ceded their Shakespearean pre-eminence in the capital to the new Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank.

Although the RSC’s latest artistic director Gregory Doran has not found a new home for the RSC in London – and he doesn’t seem to be in any rush – he has at least signed a three-year contract to bring Shakespeare’s plays back to the Barbican for a limited season, and this (the second) year’s offering, is of those same Henry IV plays, with Antony Sher as a jovial, deliberately enunciated Falstaff and Jasper Britton as a tremendous, tortured, impetuous dying king.

Britton’s is by far the most vivid and original performance on the stage. The RSC hasn’t had a great Falstaff since the late Robert Stephens', and while Sher is a perfectly adequate fat knight, he doesn’t exude the energy or brilliance he harnessed to his mid-career RSC readings of Richard III, Shylock, Malvolio, Titus and Leontes. This is partly due to the sober-suited, traditional production by his civil partner Doran; the show looks like a throwback even beyond Trevor Nunn’s unexceptional 1982 Barbican version with Joss Ackland as an infinitely duller Falstaff.

Only in both parts do you get the full picture of a nation in turmoil, on the move, and while Part One is undoubtedly the better play, Part Two has the most famous scenes, the recruitment of cannon fodder in Gloucestershire, the renunciation of Falstaff at the end. The action unfolds easily enough on Stephen Brimson Lewis flexible design, Sher rising from a ton of bedclothes in the Eastcheap tavern along with Alex Hassell’s beef-cakey Prince Hal and two obliging low-life doxies. He’s definitely a dirty old man, something Paolo Dionisotti’s beaky, acidulous Mistress Quickly is keen not to let him forget.

The RSC can always re-define itself with the history plays, but this is far less an exciting, call-to-arms style of production than Doran’s work with David Tennant on both Hamlet and Richard II. And the company is not exactly RSC vintage, though some admire Oliver Ford Davies' pedantic old Shallow a lot more than I do. Trevor White’s blond Hotspur is tetchy rather than sulphurous and walks around in short little steps at odds with his leaping utterances. There’s a decent enough double from Joshua Richards as sonorous old Glendower and bottle-nosed Bardolph, but there’s not much sign that Hassell’s vacuous prince will transform successfully into the war-mongering king of Henry V as he’s slated to do.  

The problem for the RSC at the moment is that, even as they announce a big foreign tour of China in 2016, they are becoming too Stratford-upon-Avon-centric. The company was formed by Peter Hall in 1960 to perform in both Stratford and London, and everything in the Stratford repertoire would be seen in the capital. Only the Henry IV plays have made that transfer from last year’s season, and it’s indicative of the parlous state in which the company is now perceived by the London theatre-going public that Rupert Goold’s 2011 brilliant and radical RSC Merchant of Venice has been re-vamped sensationally for Goold’s Almeida Theatre, not the RSC in London, and that Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female prisoner conflation of the two Henry IV plays has created more buzz and interest than the RSC’s (distressing news of half empty houses at the Barbican during the run) even though it was crammed into the elitist precincts of the Donmar Warehouse.

 


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