Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Henry IV Part I is a superb showcase for Shakespeare’s comedic gifts. Bolstered by a sublime Sir Antony Sher, this RSC production plays up the laughs, then sharpens its edges as rebellion closes in.
The play is part of the historical sequence that culminates in Henry V. That future king is the focus here, too, but his heroic prospects are little in evidence to start. Prince Hal hangs out in taverns and brothels, partakes in petty crime, befriends highwaymen… he’s a high-class poster-boy for errant youth. Alex Hassell plays the wayward prince with dashing charisma, enlisting our sympathies as he later does soldiers.
The devil on his shoulder is Sir John Falstaff, a former knight who spends his days drunk. Amoral yet avuncular, Falstaff is a thieving Blackadder-esque bastard who paradoxically radiates warmth. Shakespeare veteran Sir Antony Sher brings out these delectable contradictions in scene after scene. Whether bumbling his way through hilarious fibs or railing against ‘honour’, Sher is definitive. His red-faced Falstaff combines slurred, slow-mo speech with an almost Santa level of jollity.
For his part, Prince Hal is shrewd, led astray only as far as suits him. His rival is the obstinate Hotspur, played with feral abandon by Trevor White. Hotspur’s family feel injured by the haughty Henry IV (Jasper Britton), a brooding yet imposing background figure, which kicks off the rebellion that leads to the climactic battle.
But while political insurgency looms, it’s the relationship between Hal and Falstaff that delights. Hal and close comrade Poins (a lively Sam Marks) play a prank that Sir John dearly deserves; in turn, Falstaff scales a table and mocks the throne. Some theatregoers shy away from Shakespeare for its perceived difficulty, but at its funniest, such concerns vanish. This production nails the characterisation, which is the best entry point for newcomers to the plays.
Paola Dionisotti is an eye-rolling, long-suffering Mistress Quickly, the tavern landlady who spends half her time parrying Falstaff’s barbs. Dionisotti does well to stand out; some of the supporting cast, in Sher’s shadow, struggle to make an impression in these riotous scenes.
Gregory Doran directs, and the staging is unfussy – there’s nothing here to sate those who like modern twists with their Bard. But moments are striking. A memorable tableau comes as Sher’s Falstaff, front and centre, belittles the desperate men he has conned into fighting, while in a sluggish line they trudge behind him towards battle and death.
And that’s where we’re headed, despite the humour laced through Henry IV Part I. Hal gets back into his father’s good graces when the rebellion thunders in, then the bowmen crowd the stage and the swords and shields clang. Battle scenes can disappoint on stage, but the choreography here is slick. Sean Chapman, as Scottish lord Douglas, convinces that he’s fixing to lop off heads.
Political and personal lives remain teasingly in flux as the dust settles, and you’ll want to see this company’s Part II, which promises to be more elegiac but with the same richness of characterisation.