The RSC history cycle continues, and sell-out performances are running back to back in Camden’s own versatile theatre space, the Roundhouse. Performing the whole history cycle within such a small time period is not only a noteworthy achievement for the actors involved, but is also a fair achievement for those committed audience members who make it to several performances in one go. Indeed, most people are there for the long haul, seeing all the plays at some point over the season. This is in no way to detract from the breathtaking individual performances this versatile cast brings to every play, but just to highlight that a certain degree of stamina is needed by audience members to get through this testing, but rewarding cycle.
The initial two scenes of Part 1 offer a good contrast between the headstrong Henry IV (Clive Wood) and the loutish and lazy Hal (Geoffrey Streatfeild). Hal’s exuberance and sharp wit demonstrates his intelligence and his potential to accede the throne, if only he would cease his wayward behaviour. Henry IV is presented as headstrong and threatening. He is an intimidating force, and the fear he strikes into his subjects is entirely tangible throughout Wood’s performance.
As has come to be expected from RSC performances, the usual combination of rope gymnastics over the stage and audience also feature in this performance. With this in mind, the constant use of ropes thrown down and dragged up from above does become a little superfluous after awhile.
The serious and threatening atmosphere that surrounds Henry IV is greatly contrasted by the fun and frivolity of Hal’s life. Although Henry IV’s disdain for his reckless son is understandable, it is also easy to understand Prince Hal’s need to escape into his own world. Though his renegade group of tavern friends are criminals and reprobates, they offer him a haven of close friendships and are therefore an escape from his enormously powerful and headstrong father – something the Eastcheap group demonstrates very clearly on stage.
The quips and witty insults exchanged between Falstaff (David Warner) and Hal make wonderful entertainment, creating a happy and jovial atmosphere, which feels a world away from the King’s courtly troubles. Warner and Streatfeild are particularly brilliant during the scene in which both Falstaff and Hal ‘play act’ the part of the King, bringing to light both humour as well as insight into Hal’s innermost thoughts. Throughout this cleverly performed roleplay, the audience quickly gains a much greater knowledge of Hal. Revelations about how he really feels about his father and Falstaff’s influence over him are hidden just beneath the surface of this intricately comedic and well-played scene.
Keith Bartlett’s performance of Harry Percy (aka ‘Hotspur’) is energetic and inspired. He is captivating to watch and makes it easy to become swept up in his anger. As with many of the husbands and wives portrayed in the histories, Hotspur and his wife have a wonderfully exuberant relationship; it is intense, humorous and energetic. These glimpses into the domestic sphere of noble lives add much depth to the political and bloody wars that dominate the stage.
The relationship between Hal and Henry IV is a fascinating blend of power, emotion and tension. The scene where the two characters meet alone is beautifully portrayed. Wood’s King is impressively imposing, bursting with masculinity. It becomes clear why Hal would feel inadequate and anxious, having to live up to a man of this stature. The complexities of this father/son relationship are well portrayed. A strong element of hope is also offered in this scene—hope that the immature enthusiasm and energy of young Hal may yet grow and transform to fit the mould of an ambitious heir to the throne. The final battle scenes of Henry IV Part 1, exclaim Hal’s meteoric ascendance into his position of responsibility as heir to the throne. Even the King is shocked by his valiant behaviour – shock balanced with pride, of course.
A little audience participation at one point helps to provide much hilarity, as one section of the audience is asked to stand and be addressed as soldiers. This helps to further break down the barriers between cast and audience, something the RSC is always mindful to do.
A fantastic battle scene is the highlight of the action, where all supporters of the King are dressed as him with crowns upon their heads. Ingenious stage lighting and smoke effects with a slow speed choreographed sword scene appears original, imposing, and incredibly exciting to watch. The battle scenes in real time are equally as exciting and realistically performed.
As Part 2 gets into full swing, Warner’s Falstaff grows in humour and wit. Falstaff is wonderfully portrayed in this production as the definitive lovable rogue. Mistress Quickly (Maureen Beattie) also offers an effervescent and feisty performance. Alexia Healy's portrayal of Doll Tearsheet is energetic and convincing in drunkenness, comical knavery, and entrancing anger, and is captivating on the stage.
Of note is Geoffrey Freshwater’s depiction of Justice Shallow. He is adeplorable character, and yet Freshwater somehow makes this amusing andacceptable.
Music is subtly and effectively used. The appearance of musicians on stage for the party scenes helps to add to the jovial atmosphere. I wonder, though, when the bass clarinet became a legitimate instrument choice for a traditionally-set Renaissance play. Musical anachronism is fine, but to place it on stage as a feature seems an odd measure.
Thankfully, director Michael Boyd must be aware of the inevitable lull the audience suffers when heading back into the theatre for the second half of their second play of the day, as he includes a delightful sketch just after the interval. This small interjection of mimed comedy helps to diffuse the seriousness of the first half, and infuses a needed dose of energy into both the play and the audience.
The ailing Henry IV performs his demise well, especially through the contrast he creates with his previously headstrong demeanour. Wood passionately expresses the King’s eagerness to hold onto his crown until the last moment, and his worries for the future of his kingdom and his son are painfully evident. These last scenes bring together the crux of these two plays—not necessarily about Henry IV and his reign, but more so about Prince Hal’s preparation for his ascension to the throne within his abandonment of a frivolous existence, and his acceptance of the responsibilities and royal burdens into which he was born.