Growing old, not up

The Stratford productions of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, directed by Terry Hands, reveal with exceptional and welcome clarity the Oedipal nature of Prince Hal's struggle. Alan Howard's Hal is a young prince, growing up. His mind is being formed by two mutually opposing fathers. His natural father, the King, is tortured by guilt and obsessed by ideals of kingship. His debased 'father', Falstaff, is impervious to guilt, scornful of honour and duty, but relishes the simple pleasures of life, sack, sex and getting away with things.

In the last act of this eventful history, both fathers die, the old King in a prolonged deathbed struggle in which his destiny, England's future and an intensely self-absorbed relationship with his son war with the fever in his bones. Death does not come until his will allows it to: satisfied that Hal has the mettle to command honourably, the old King allows himself to be borne into the Jerusalem chamber.

Falstaff's 'death' is quieter but no less categoric. It begins by being 'caught out', by the Lord Chief Justice and Mistress Quickly combined. It continues in the countryside, traipsing up north with his band of pub belligerents and stopping off on the way to con Justice Shallow and all. It ends in London, with his rejection by Hal, the young King, in front of his friends, drinking partners and those whom he needs to impress. With this cruel snub, Falstaff's optimism and his will to live disperse, with the other rebels against the state. Only his paunch and distended liver twitch on nervously: the man is dead.

Hands stresses the finality of Falstaff's decline with a short tableau. The stage has been cleared of kings, courtiers and riff-raff: only the tangled, white branches of a dead tree stretch across, wall to wall bones. The massive figure of Brewster Mason's Falstaff stands, his head bowed, beneath them. He could be dangling in the drying wind.

Between these two paternal poles, Hal vacillates like a rebellious compass. When he is with one, he is attracted to the other, which is one reason why Hal's first soliloquy in Part One ('I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness') has to be played with a young man's superciliousness - priggish, certainly, but with a bubbling ambitiousness to give energy to this cold assessment of Falstaff's gang. He can also be disdainful of the court: 'My appetite was not princely got.' Hal is someone on the loose, noble in instinct, perhaps, but capricious and watchful as well, for he has not yet come into his own.

When he succeeds to the throne, he makes up his mind with a suddeness which startles everyone. He cuts off that side of his nature, represented by his association with Falstaff, and this is a typically adolescent decision. He is like that graduate who fritters away his time at university, and then resolves to be a millionaire by 30. Everything has to be sacrificed to that one aim; in Hal's case, the glory of kingship.

Shakespeare takes these regal longings so much more seriously than we do or can. The final speech of Prince John (played with cold precision by Charles Dance) sounds ominous to us, about the bird whispering of French wars, wheras Shakespeare surely intended it to be the first intimation of a heroic future. The director's first task, if he is not to go against the bias of the play, is to make us feel that Hal has taken the right decision. Hands does not quite succeed in this. Brewster Mason's Falstaff is a warm and likeable man, wise, too, in his assessment of human limitations, whereas the political which Henry IV had to face and which Hal inherited are only sketched in roughly.

Hands fails to convince us of the need for strong rulers, and so kingship is left as the mere quest for glory, not as the one hope for a secure state.

One curious trait in Hand's directorial character is that when he faces scenes which require plain, even pedantic, storytelling, he has a tendency to get bored with them and to stray into ornate symbolism. Although he does not make us feel that England is about to disintegrate from factionalism and jealous bickering, he presents us with some extraordinary images. The regional rebels cluster like black ravens, to pick the carcass of a king (and a kingdom) who is by no means dead. When Hal is crowned, Hands lays a glistening white carpet across the stage, with the courtiers lined up one side and Falstaff's friends roughly gathered on the other. Then Hal appears, covered from nose to toenail in gleaming gold. He walks downstage, to RSC trumpets, and raises his golden visor to speak to Falstaff: and to reject him.

It is a magnificent touch of directorial rhetoric, but the problem with such gestures is what to do next. To get off stage, Hal then has to make a U-turn, which reduces the sweeping movement to an anti-climactic contrivance. Similarly, Hands allows his actors to reach forced climaxes from which there can be no convincing return to ordinary acting rhythms. Brewster Mason has one such misjudged moment, when he crudely rams Doll Tearsheet and Hal together, but the worst example occurs in the deathbed scene, between Emrys James's Henry IV and Hal. James is excellent in the early scenes of cunning and determination, but when he tries to lecture Hal on taking the crown prematurely, he forgets the reality of his sickness. Instead of staying in bed, battling with his breath, James clambers around the room, up on a chair, grovelling on the floor, delivering his lines with the operatic relish of a diva who has been given 15 minutes to die.

In contrast, Mason underplays Falstaff, but tellingly and with good judgment. He does not linger on the jokes or the insults, or bluster his way crudely out of trouble. Mason concentrates on Falstaff's humanity, the loving tolerance of the scene at Eastcheap and his gradual recognition of age and approaching death, in the scenes with Shallow and Silence. His cunning is pragmatic, not malicious, and we sense that, when his ship comes home and Hal is king, he plans genuinely to repay his friends.

Hal's rejection of him is, thus, a tragedy in miniature, and not just for the sake of Sir John's feelings. 'If I had the choice between betraying my friends and betraying my country,' E.M. Forster once wrote, 'I hope that I would have the courage to betray my country.' Hal thinks otherwise; and that is his tragedy, inevitable perhaps, even creditable, but painful, nonetheless.

John Elsom

The Listener, 3.7.75.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry IV, Part II