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.