Friday, 22 October 2010

Henry IV, Part Two: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Henry IV, Part Two
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
July 3 – October 3, 2010

‘Does anyone ever do Henry IV, Part Two by itself?’ asks my dad after we emerge from Dominic Dromgoole’s most excellent sequel at The Globe. Probably not, because although it is a superlative historical drama, it follows on from Part One too comfortably to stand alone.

Prince Hal (Jamie Parker) is still unsure where he fits in life; like Prince Charles, his job is to wait for his monarch-parent to die. The moment when Hal thinks this has happened is shockingly powerful and moving as he has the temerity to touch the crown, only to then stand silent and chastised as his father (Oliver Cotton) remonstrates with him.

Falstaff (Roger Allam) is still a powerful coward full of bombast and bravado. Age and the law are catching up with him, however, and he is slightly more contemplative as he realises he has no true friends and may have only a lonely dotage ahead of him. He tries to shrug off such reflections with cheap tricks and ale but the merry-making seems forced. We understand why actors relish the role of Falstaff and why he is the only one of Shakespeare’s characters to get his own spin-off play, but also when Hal and his ‘shadow’ Poins (Danny Lee Wynter) tire of him, it is easier to share their disillusionment than in Part One.

The tavern scenes are exquisitely executed, from the distressed Mistress Quickly (Barbara Marten) who is simply trying to make a profit and avoid ‘swaggerers’ while her husband nonchalantly smokes his pipe on the balcony, to the vigorous slapstick humour of Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams). She proves adept at physical comedy as she hurls herself (in more ways than one) across the stage –let’s just say the groundlings at the front get slightly more than they bargained for.

There are yet more politics and manoeuvres in this second part of the trilogy and they continue to be expressed with intelligence and clarity. A particularly Machiavellian piece of skulduggery reveals Hal’s younger brother John of Lancaster (Joseph Timms) in a not-entirely-honourable light. He is steadfast and practical, however, and more like a stereotypical older brother who gets the job done without any of Hal’s shenanigans, of which he clearly disaproves.

William Gaunt is quite brilliant as the doddering old Shallow bringing humour to what could otherwise be quite tedious scenes of choosing soldiers, and providing such much-needed lightness as the tone darkens. He is delightfully shambolic and his double act with Silence played by Christopher Godwin is the best I’ve seen since Morecambe and Wise.

With the death of his father, Prince Hal becomes King Henry V and his return to the stage (he is absent for three-quarters of the play) makes it shine anew. Although he claims, ‘This new and gorgeous garment, majesty/ Sits not so easy on me as you think’, he does in fact assume the mantle with aplomb. And when he rejects Falstaff at the conclusion, we are not as sad as we might be because we know it would be disastrous if, as the dissolute knight has boasted, ‘the laws of England are at my commandement’.

The new king reveals a glimpse of the old playboy when he promises he will reward Falstaff and his companions with advancement, but assures them it will only be ‘as we hear you do reform yourselves’ and not purely through nepotism. Already he is proving to be an adherent to fairness and justice – the audience can once again leave on a high knowing the (past) future of England is in good hands.

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.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Laughing in the Face of Adversity

Today is my birthday and I should be celebrating. And I am, mostly. I have had lunch and coffee with friends, been for a walk by the river and am going out to dinner at a fine Italian restaurant with my husband tonight.

Not everything is a box of fluffies/ bowl of cherries/ bed of roses, however. I have got laryngitis and completely lost my voice so am only able to smile, wave and squeak. I've never especially liked clowns and now am afraid I may be turning into one with my elaborate (panto)mimes! I have noticed that I am still able to laugh, which I find an interesting anatomical curiosity as it seems to prove that laughter is visceral and does not come from the throat at all. In fact, as Peter Cook points out in Tragically I Was an Only Twin,'A laugh, like an erection, is largely involuntary'. Hmmm.

But today's main disappointment has been the performance of my beloved football team. I got up at half past one to watch them lose the Miseryside derby in comprehensive fashion to Everton. Tragic. We are now second to bottom of the league - only kept off the lowest spot by a marginally 'superior' goal difference. This is the worst position Liverpool has occupied in my living memory. Even more tragic.

And yet, the Scousers still see humour in the situation. At Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, there is a bronze statue of the erstwhile Beatle. On the ceiling is written the airport's motto, taken from his song, Imagine: 'Above us only sky'. Rumour has it that some wag has scrawled alongside it, 'Below us only West Ham'. You've got to laugh, apparently...