August 4, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Henry IV Part I (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
The disappointment is crushing. It was perhaps too much to hope that every play in the Histories Cycle would be a cracker, but after five excellent productions (even Richard III, which I wasn’t too fussed about at the time, has left a positive impression on me), Michael Boyd has finally dropped the ball.
That said, if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the cycle has been so good, I might not have cared. This isn’t a bad production, merely a very disappointing one which has missed its potential. Let down by a couple of key performances and, most crucially, missing the humour which goes a long way towards making this one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished pieces of work, it is the first of the Histories Cycle that has felt like a chore to sit through.
It is in large part due to the cast. No one member of the cast is in any more than seven plays, and for many of my favourite performers this is the show they miss- Jonathan Slinger, Forbes Masson, Katy Stephens, Chuk Iwuji, James Tucker, Richard Cordery and Nicholas Asbury are all on the reserves bench for this production. This is partly compensated for by the welcome return of Julius D’Silva, absent in Richard II but back now as Bardolph in a very funny performance, including a headlong dive from the balcony on his first appearance and a pitiful attempt at rope-climbing prior to the Gadshill robbery. He’s an excellent performer who has provided wonderful turns all through the cycle, and he clearly revels in his Cockney drunkard.
Where the play suffered was in its leads. David Warner’s Falstaff, much-hyped, is an odd piece of casting, Warner clearly a tall thin man wearing a fatsuit. He brings gravitas and a wonderful facility with language to the role, but he simply isn’t funny. What laughs there were were either entirely at Shakespeare’s words or else at bits of ‘business’- for instance, Falstaff donning a pair of false glasses and moustache as a disguise. Warner himself, however, was distinctly unfunny in the role, instead being listless and far less important to the story than he should by rights be. His intrusions onto the stage were more of an annoyance than a relief, and he threw away some of the best lines, particularly in his famous catechism on honour.
He wasn’t helped by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal. The oiliness and slick smoothness that made his Suffolk such an enjoyable and slimy villain in Henry VI was unwisely retained here. Streatfeild’s Hal was a smooth and humourless operator who, most bizarrely, never seemed to have the remotest liking or affection for Falstaff. From the moment they woke up in bed together to Hal’s evident disgust, to the battlefield where, of all things, he almost gloated at Falstaff’s dead body, there was never any doubt in the audience’s mind that this was a prince who was killing time in the tavern and was more than ready to take his place at the court. Falstaff was not a father figure, but an annoyance, someone he had to put up with while he had a drink, more like the lecherous old man in the pub who you end up talking to against your will. The only person Hal seemed to have any affection for was Poins, played by Kieran Hill, who did at least bring an energy and comedy to the tavern scenes. Every scene was played seriously, even the play extempore, where Hal seemed more angry than amused. His “I do; I will” was no surprise and not even a change in tone. Streatfeild is a good actor, and I can only hope that the next two productions justify his Hal, as here he was utterly unlikable in a way that left me uninterested in his rise. The interview between he and his father was excellent, really giving Hal the opportunity to realise his faults- and yet, the scenes earlier were so serious that we already knew the outcome. There is no redemption if the subject does not need to be redeemed.
The bright light was provided by Lex Shrapnel’s Hotspur. Shrapnel provided an energetic and thoroughly enjoyable performance, ranging from blustering to intimate in his scenes with Kate. Here was a hero we could engage with, and his death at Hal’s hands was a blow to the audience, particularly as the simultaneous stabbing of Falstaff (with fake blood flying across the stage) distracted from the actual moment.
The play was best in its small moments. Maureen Beattie provided a decent Scottish Mistress Quickly, Hal and his father shared some intimate moments on the battlefield and Prince John was set up nicely as a figure to watch. The battle scenes were well done, and the pistol showdown between Walter Blunt and the Douglas was particularly well done. However, the play as a whole became tiresome. The tavern scenes were not funny, and the serious scenes were too inconsistent. The result was a mess, with the feel of a production that hadn’t settled into itself yet. This was also the first play in which ghosts played no significant role (a real shame, as the ghost of Richard II would have had a great deal to do here), and few of the clever links that have characterised Boyd’s cycle so far. Coming so soon after the decent Richard II , this production was a crying shame.
Finally, I understand Boyd’s vision that there are no ‘good’ characters in this history, as everyone commits crimes. But this Hal simply needed a good, hard kick in the head- and if I’m going to be feeling that for the remainder of the character’s life, then I have to admit I’m slightly dreading the next two plays. I don’t want to like him, I just want to be able to watch him. Richard Twyman, the associate director, takes lead directing duties for Part II, and hopefully he’ll be able to get the cycle back on track.
Shoe-horning all eight plays into an ‘octology’ imposes an uniformity on them which wasn’t present when they were written or subsequently performed. Although unfied by subject matter, they deserve to be presented with greater variety than the ensemble cast and iron dustbin set can allow.
That’s true, though don’t forget of course that Boyd isn’t the first to do this. It was Tillyard who first articulated ‘The Tudor Myth’, the idea that the eight plays were all inextricably linked, part of the same progression showing Shakespeare’s triumphant and thoroughly nationalistic view of English history leading to the Tudor ideal.
Absolute rubbish, in my opinion! But there are clearly links, and Boyd’s been clever in drawing them out.
I agree though, more variety is needed, particularly when you come to the ‘Henry IV’ plays which need that injection of real humour, not the overly serious take that Boyd chose in Part One. I don’t know if you’ve seen Richard III, but the more modern setting for that was a welcome relief, and I hope that Henry V takes some more daring decisions too.
Falstaff is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest character after Hamlet. Sadly, Falstaff is not David Warner’s greatest character portrayal. This Falstaff seemed far too inhibited, too refined, to have fun, which meant that there was no fun for the audience. Geoffrey Streatfeild as Hal revealed an actor who has not learned that the secret of fine acting is to use the least amount of effort necessary to create a desired effect. That is to say, he was trying too hard to create a believable character. The same can be said of Lex Shrapnel as Hotspur.
In contrast, it was indeed a pleasure to see and hear Clive Wood’s rich-voiced Henry IV. The ladies, too, were excellent. Ann Ogbomo played Hotspur’s wife, Kate; and Maureen Beattie played Mistress Quickly.
Altogether though, it was a lacklustre production by Michael Boyd; a far cry from Michael Bogdanov’s gritty and highly amusing production some 15 or 20 years ago.
Apparently the wonderful Julius D’Silva went on as Falstaff on Saturday when Warner was sick. Wish wish wish I’d seen it. He is as you say an absolute delight, has really been a star through the whole histories cycle and he really deserved to get a big role at the end. Such a pity Boyd felt the need to cast Warner… I can’t understand it. He’s been so astute in the casting so far, and I know I’ll always remember this histories cycles as one of the greatest theatre experiences I’ve ever had. So what was he thinking? You are spot on in your criticism – I was terribly disappointed too. You just can’t have that thin-ness of character for a Falstaff. There was a gaping whole in the heart and soul of both Henry IVs because of him. So so frustrating – when I am sure understudy D’Silva would bring it all together wonderfully – a role he was born for, surely. I know it is greedy to expect great things as our right with this cycle, but it’s their own fault for being so extraordinary in their other productions. I’m with you too with Richard II and it was a thrill to read a review that I agreed with so much but would never have been able to express so well. Particularly that line about Slinger’s deposition scene “where his despair and depression combined with a reckless lack of care”. Exactly. Utterly thrilling and I suppose if they can come up with this, they deserve our forgiveness. Plus the flat, all-but-absent Falstaff through Hal and his father into much greater relief, and much greater interest as the only thriving relationship in the whole two plays – and whenever Streatfeild and Clive Wood were on stage together, it was electric.
I have to disagree with this review; perhaps it is because you watched all three plays together that this didn’t stand out? I don’t know, but on it’s own this, I found, was a remarkable performance. I was particularly impressed by David Warner and Geoffery Streatfield’s performances. Streatfeild’s Hal was amazing, he managed to do something different with the role, as opposed to what, clearly, everyone was expecting. The point of acting is to show your own take on a relationship, or character, instead of playing it the way everybody plays it. In the case of this play, and this particular character – well, let’s just say it’s Shakespeare, everybody knows it, everybody expects it to be a certain way. What Streatfield did was show the audience a different interpretation, and one I found to be particularly interesting. He showed, in my opinion, a more in depth character, who did have a journey through the play. You empathised with him because his Hal showed a character who knew they had to grow up and take on responsibility, but didn’t want to for fear of disappointing his father further, amongst other things.
Now Warner’s Falstaff I am really surprised you found fault with. He was incredibly funny. And his absoloutely beautiful rendition of the ‘honour’ speech really moved the audience. His Falstaff showed a bitter character, who did have fun, but clung onto his ‘friendship’ with Hal for money and fun, as is described in the text.
It was really the opening that I found disappointing, and Henry IV – I found he gabbled his lines like it was a race of some kind. Lex Shrapnel however was, again, a great choice for his Hotspur. He brought a feeling to the roll which gave the character much more density than just being angry all the time. Overall the casting I thought was amazing, and somehow I feel as if I watched a completely different play to all of you for some reason; however you are all entitled to your own opinions, as am I.
Different nights, different takes, and it’s fascinating to see such different opinions on Warner’s Falstaff! I should point out to Alex that I DIDN’T see all three plays together, I saw Part II over a week later, and I thought he was much better in Part II. It’s also worth remembering that, at this early stage before the press night, the productions are in a constant state of flux and the actors are in many ways still finding their feet with the new characters.
Warner’s Falstaff I agree had a wonderful voice, but he wasn’t engaged with the play at all: he was a sideshow, particularly in the soliloquies where he spoke beautifully but failed to connect his work to anything else that was happening. He also struggled with his fat suit, and in Part II was having problems with his lines. I think he was much better in Part II- a play in which Falstaff is far more concerned with his mortality and where a serious portrayal works very well, but he really wan’t funny in Part I at all- the fake glasses and moustache he tried on were funnier.
My annoyance with Streatfeild’s Hal wasn’t one of expectation, just one of tone. On the night I saw Part I he was so hostile towards Falstaff at all stages that the relationship appeared to have no importance whatsoever: he appeared more shallow by appearing to be his father’s son throughout. He wasn’t that different from his portrayal of the slimey Suffolk in Henry VI, but while that worked, a sleazy Hal I find far less appealing. I didn’t like him, though he definitely improved in Part II – as with Falstaff, though, this wasn’t a development in his portrayal so much as that the material in Part II better suited the way he played the character.
Anna- Wow! I would have LOVED to see D’Silva as Falstaff! Before David Warner was announced, it was D’Silve who I really hoped would be playing him. That would be fab…..
I don’t do this very often, but I was just reading Benedict Nightingale’s review of the plays for the Times and his discussion of Streatfeild and Warner in this discussion resonated strongly with me, so I thought I would share it.
_There’s every justification for playing Hal as a cold fish, but Streatfeild takes this surprisingly far, putting me in mind of an Oxbridge undergraduate offhandedly trying heroin as he disdainfully slums with the proles. He seems to have no sense of fun, no fondness even for Kieran Hill’s Poins, with whom he’s having an equally experimental gay fling. No wonder this charmless, unstable boy doesn’t bring out the ebullience in Warner, a more watchful, wary Falstaff than usual: a wry old realist who, from the start, seems tired, sickly, all too aware he must live off his wits.
These are defensible, thoughtful interpretations, but in neither case do they allow much development. The Falstaff who robs travellers at Gadshill is no different from the one who ruefully rejects honour, sends his cloudy urine to the doctor, or tolerates the dopy babble of his old chum, Geoffrey Freshwater’s Shallow. And the Hal who robs the robbers is much the same as the one who grimly warns Falstaff of his impending rejection and icily carries it out._
That pretty much sums up the feeling I had while watching Part I, that they were already in their Part II mode without showing us any journey. I always appreciate it when I see a review which says what I though, but says it much better!
I saw this on Friday and agree with most of what you say, especially about David Warner’s Falstaff lacking humour and Shrapnel’s Hotspur being awesome. I felt Streatfield’s Hal was good, it being ‘an interesting choice’ to play his relationship to Falstaff that way rather than obviously wrong.
I don’t much like the play compared to Shakespeare’s others though – it feels like not enough actually happens in the time.