Thursday, 21 October 2010

Henry IV, Part One: Buzzing on the Banks of the Thames

Henry IV, Part One

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
July 8 – October 3, 2010

Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry IV, Part One at The Globe is sensitive and rambunctious; traditional and contemporary; and overall compelling viewing. It ranges from royalty to riff-raff; battlefields to brothels; city to countryside and high politics to low humour, and all of it is immensely entertaining.

The play examines the troubled relationship between sons and their fathers (both real and surrogate), and the nature of friendship as it alters with power, responsibility and age. Prince Hal has diametrically opposed father-figures, although he eventually rejects both of them, ‘breaking through the foul and ugly mists’ to emerge blazing as his own man.

I’ve always thought the part of Henry IV was a bit ineffective but Oliver Cotton delivers his conscience-wrestling quandary with dignity, sincerity and a great command of the language. On the other hand, there is the irrepressible Roger Allam as Falstaff. Falstaff is an unashamed scene stealer, milking every nuance to just the right extent, working his audience like a stand-up comedian so that we feel part of the show. He is morally reprehensible with a terrible attitude to life and impeccable comic timing. Whether he is exaggerating his part in a duel or delivering an in-depth and unfavourable analysis of honour – musing on philosophy as he casually devours a tub of ice-cream – he is a joy to witness.

The fact that Allam doesn’t dominate the entire play, however, is due to the comprehensive direction and the brilliance of the other characters. Jamie Parker has made me fall in love with Prince Hal and Henry IV, Part One all over again. From the moment he emerges from a trapdoor with his pants around his ankles and a twinkle in his eye, his conflict of self-interest is fantastic. The trading of insults with Falstaff is sublime: if only pub slanging matches were so witty. Hal maintains his irreverent sense of fun even as he matures before our eyes through the course of the play.

He can be noble and resolute and not afraid to shirk responsibility when it falls upon him. He knows what will be expected of him, and is itching to get down to the job. He mocks his father when he imitates him in a pub, but he defends him bravely in battle and foreshadows his steely rejection of Falstaff, ‘like bright metal on sullen ground’. The opposing natures of the young prince are both excellently explored. Will the real Prince Hal please stand up? I desperately want him to play Henry V – I’d follow him into a breach any time.

Hal also has to contend with Harry (Hotspur) Percy as a model of valour. Sam Crane indulges his fiery nature to provoke humour but also respect. He may be all-too prepared to fight for his beliefs, but at least he has some. Glendower (Sean Kearns) tries to restrain him with a steady hand and a mellifluous voice, but Hotspur remains tempestuous. He may be heated in battle, but lacks passion in his domestic relationships, much to the frustrated chagrin of his wife, Kate (Lorna Stuart). She behaves a little as though she is auditioning for The X-Factor and is too focussed on herself to interact with the others, although once again, you can hear every word that she intones.

The play (and its sequel) contain a good deal of principles and affairs of state, but the scenes are acted so well and spoken so clearly that you are never lost in the potential mire that could be English ‘War of the Roses’ history. Politics are given edge (literally) in sword fights and tavern scenes. The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, incorporates rustic qualities as minimal touches elicit maximum effect. Heraldic banners hang from all the banisters and a simple backcloth unfurls to denote our locations, from the Boar’s Head tavern to the battle encampment or the King’s bedchamber. It is a delight and an honour to experience this production in its spiritual home.

It may be a traditional production in period dress but don’t be fooled into thinking it is sedate. It is infused with high energy from the riotous mummers’ performance at the beginning to the sardonic dance at the end which sends the audience out buzzing to the banks of the Thames. Music and singing enhances the play throughout with musicians augmenting the slick scene changes to ensure the action never flags.

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