Henry IV Part I

The second production in the RSC's splendid triad of Bolingbroke-Falstaff-Hal plays gets straight down to business. With the born-to-be-King Hal established by Henry V as the apex of this triangle, we now meet the angles on the base line that will pull him, the one to make him acute, the other obtuse (doomed), knowing that he comes out right in the end to which we have already been privy.

The felicities of this production are less of a piece than the dazzling unity of style Terry Hands and Farrah achieved for Henry V. Here both King and prince stray into scenes from which they are usually absent. From the first, Henry IV watches, soft-lit and chorus-like, from the back of the stage as Hal and Falstaff flirt - almost literally flirt - with self-indulgence. From his dallying, Hal strolls off, seeing Henry lambast the nobles who will turn against him, removed from his father yet linked as he circles the stage. The set-piece tavern scenes are played amongst a clutter of furnishings - a barrel-armchair palpably Sir John's, all sizes of barrels, a meat and game rack topped by a straw hogshead and a wooden structure that suggests step-ladder, barrel-chute and gable. Atop this latter, Henry observes, almost unspotted in brown habit like a friar, the wraith of kingship. Father and son are present for the tender scene between Mortimer and his wife, Henry on his perch, Hal hidden in a shadowy corner, drinking, listening.

Emrys James and Alan Howard

Otherwise, threads of visual style and symbol are less apparent than threads of emphasis. The casting of Brewster Mason as Falstaff casts a strong light across the social structure of the play. The first thing to be said is that this Falstaff is a natural aristocrat. We do not for one moment doubt the legitimacy of that knighthood. This man has breeding and makes good use of it. He is at times close by a noblesse oblige manner, more often he assumes out of his standing, is forgiven because of it. He makes casual use of menials, treats Quickly (Maureen Pryor, tetchy, long-suffering) with all the thoughtlessness of a man who has never known want. In battle, his dissembling with Hotspur's body seems his entitlement as a gent. Mason stands and he dwarfs Hal, he is purple-faced, huge-headed, he wildly dominates the tavern, vast in scarlet, white and leather amongst the dirty whites and greys of normal frames. But he gives Falstaff a complacent dignity. He's not a man to puke in the gutter in the small hours. He's no fraud. His position has taught him self-indulgence. It's not a gigantic comic performance, rather a precise character creation that snugs in with the production.

Taking up this lead, Alan Howard's Hal is quickly into class solidarity when need be. Like any young yahoo confronting authority personified by a lower order, he is unanswerably scathing with the sheriff who has the misfortune to come to the tavern. But with neither father, natural or surrogate, is he at complete ease. His loose and languid demeanour with Falstaff is off-set by a fidgetiness as if he's conscious of the father-wraith hovering. His voice hardens with knowing. He and Sir John clasp each other often as though the fat knight might be the blanket to his Linus. In the tavern, Hal's impersonation of power is relished, prefiguring (with hindsight!) the Scroop scene in Henry V. He finds his ease as the soldiers stride into battle, trailing the dry ice that hides his insecurity.

The tavern

With his actual father, this Hal becomes boyish, nervy. Given Emrys James's wolfing - I almost wrote Wolfiting - of the speeches, it's hardly surprising. James's Henry treats Hal as a child, takes his hand, pulls him onto the seat (for one) beside him, hugs him, kisses him. He tries to supplant the physical affection evident between Hal and Sir John but the boy is only disorientated and reaches out of the scene to take bottle and goblet from the tavern in which their palace meeting is limboed. For my taste, Emrys James overdoes it. Rough-voiced, he harangues us - 'the edge of wa-a-a-a-a-ar', only to turn expansive and gushing in his court, hugging himself with glee. His dignity is brittle as he dismisses Worcester and, when Hotspur debates him with confidence, he becomes a badger at bay. Throughout, and especially in his speeches to Worcester, which are by turns harsh and patronising, James gives a florid rendition, unmistakable outside-in acting. With the aim still, I think, to clarify and emphasise the text, this works against rather than for.

Again Stewart Leviton's lighting is rich and eerie - figures in sunsets, mute, fitful flickers hardening as purpose hardens, locations receding without a stick being moved, Hal and Hotspur spotlit in murderous battle. Sound and smoke create the heat and blood. Douglas, a hulking grizzly whom Falstaff gallantly takes on later, is seen in deadlock with Blunt and their sword clashes multiply on cymbals. Verbal confrontations are clattering, sweaty, edgy. They echo. Before the bloodletting, Hotspur is played by Stuart Wilson as a force in a hurry. Not entirely free from rant, he works out a fine, concentrated frustration. A good match is his tiny spitfire of a Kate, Ann Hasson, and they turn their scene's moods excitingly. Amongst the conspirators, George Baker lets a supercilious smile play on Worcester's lips, remains silent, still and totally evil. Griffith Jones's Glendower is a theatrical, druidical figure. Terence Wilton's Mortimer a rational juvenile. With Hotspur hot, the possibilities of faction within faction are endless.

Terry Hands paces superbly once more and the play is held in sharp focus and elegant shape. It stands by itself but only a dilettante would see it alone.

W Stephen Gilbert

Plays and Players, July 1975

Playing Shakespeare/Henry IV Part I