February 29, 2008, by Peter Kirwan
Henry IV Part I (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights
Before all else, a hugely pleasant surprise – it was good! Not just good, but great! My main problems with this production that last time I saw it were that it was slow and boring, and that the relationship between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and David Warner’s Falstaff was static. Happily, both issues have been resolved.
- Running shorter than three hours, the performance was fast and thoroughly entertaining, and Streatfeild in particular was on absolute fire, revelling in his role as the joyful prince. The relationship with Falstaff was made infinitely more interesting by him genuinely seeming to like the knight this time, as well as enjoying the dissolute life, and the call of the court interrupted this.
- Hal developed into the heroic prince throughout the play, particularly affected by his father’s belief that he had no love for him, which upset Hal deeply. Here, it really felt that something was at stake for Hal, and his climactic showdown with Hotspur was its culmination.
- Lex Shrapnel was again superb as Hotspur, milking his scenes for all they were worth and being very funny. He was a very likeable anti-hero, a comic and real figure who called a spade a spade. His dying speech in particular was well-delivered, falling onto his belly and gazing in astonishment at his killer.
- I really enjoyed Falstaff. David Warner struck a considered balance between gravitas and ridiculousness which lent the knight a kind of dignity. He was at his funniest when sitting in his chair quietly considering how to get himself out of whichever scrape he was in at the time. The subtleties of the performance really came through, and I am very pleased to be proved wrong after not enjoying earlier performances.
- Clive Wood was brilliantly menacing in his first scene. I loved the confrontation between him and Hotspur, which culminated in him marching towards the youth. As he reached him Hotspur started to leap to his feet but in a sudden mood Henry shoved him back down. It was a powerful reassertion of power and a moment of real tension as Hotspur’s fist automatically clenched. The tension was only relieved as Henry wagged a finger and tutted at his behaviour. Hotspur’s subsequent ranting and demolition of the council chamber seemed to come from this moment of restraint.
- It was great to see Julius D’Silva back in action as Bardolph. From his first appearance running for a rope, missing his grasp and plummeting to the ground with a “Shit!” to his futile attempts to climb another rope in time to hide from the party they were robbing (who watched in confusion until he gave up, said “Bollocks” and drew his gun), he and his red nose were a pleasure.
- Matt Costain as Cutter, plummeting at unbelievable pace down a rope from the flies to inches above the ground. Enough said.
- The many nobles can seem a background to the main characters, but there were some excellent performances among the armour. Miles Richardson has a tremendous voice, and his performance as Walter Blunt brought a sense of valour and honour to the fighting. He and the Douglas (Paul Hamilton) circling each other among lines of soldiers swinging swords in slow motion was a beautiful image. Hamilton was also a figure of strength as Douglas, with broadsword slung over his back and a grittiness next to Hotspur’s vaunting. I also think Tom Hodgkins made an intimidating Westmoreland, coming across as a strong military man.
- Vernon (Luke Neal) was very strong, and the moment as the King paused as Worcester was dragged off, looked at the bloodied Vernon, left a beat and added “And Vernon too” was a moving one, seeing this honourable man taken to his death.
- The Eastcheap scenes were well done, lively and funny. Maureen Beattie held court with an excellent comic performance as Mistress Quickly, and with Streatfeild helping keep up the energy the two of them really seemed to lead these scenes, allowing Warner’s Falstaff to recline and do his good work. A special mention to Kieran Hill too, who worked his socks off as Poins and was very entertaining.
- Keith Dunphy was an adequate Mortimer, but nearly gave me a heart attack with a Pythonesque “Run away! Run away!” as a Gadshill pilgrim that was utterly hysterical. Sianed Jones as Lady Mortimer sang beautifully, and their relationship was tender and moving, with Roger Watkins’ Glendower acting the father and translating for them.
- In a very nice touch, Falstaff’s band of ragamuffins were now a section of the audience (the one where I was sitting) who were made to stand to attention as he prepared to march to war. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but a really good one that broke up a quiet patch.
I laughed a lot during this performance, but was also impressed by the more serious performances. The dynamic between Hotspur and Hal seemed to drive the production, and Falstaff felt integrated in a way I hadn’t felt before. It goes to show how much a production changes during a run, and I’m very pleased to have seen it again.