Theatre review: Henry IV Part 1

We went to see the local Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV Part 1 today.

It was… interesting.  I mean, for one thing, that is a really strange play to choose in isolation; it kind of needs Richard II to help it make sense, or Part II (and ideally Henry V) to finish the arc or something.   I spent most of the interval giving a crash course in who everyone was and what had happened in Richard II and generally how the Wars of the Roses worked to my companion and a random audience member who was shamelessly eavesdropping because she said she was there because her friends were in it and didn’t know what was going on either…

Which is not to say the actors did a bad job of getting this across (though a lot of the plainer explanations occur quite late in the play), just that it was an odd choice for this season’s main Shakespeare production.  Apparently the actors are agitating to do part 2 later in the year – I hope they will, because while I don’t think this was a perfect production, it deserves to be a *finished* one, if you know what I mean.

The production was in modern dress, with Prince Hal bearing a rather distressing resemblance to John Travolta’s character in Grease (he does, however, wear tight leather trousers quite well, so I will forgive him the hair), and the Lancaster faction in blue bow ties and cummerbunds while the Percies wore red.  Hal was a bit disappointing, aside from the leather trousers, though this might have been the fault of the director.  He played a drunk, dissolute and thoroughly unlikeable Hal to the hilt early in the play, and the competent, chivalrous soldier in the late scenes, but the two didn’t really connect.  To my mind, even Dissolute!Hal should have moments when others are not looking at him where you can see that he is watching and playing a role, and this Hal didn’t give that impression, even in that speech about how he is in fact acting the part of the wastrel.  He also missed an opportunity, I think, when he and Falstaff reverse roles in their playacting about Henry IV.  While he delivered the “I do… I shall” line beautifully, it really came from nowhere, and in the next scene with his father he is still slouching and drinking and looking like a sulky teenager.  I could believe that this Hal was the sort of person who needs a battle to fight or a challenge to rise to, but failing that just sort of falls into whatever will keep him from being bored; I couldn’t see him as the consummate politician that I believe Shakespeare wanted him to be.

Hotspur, on the other hand, was fabulous – he really owned the stage whenever he was on it, and had the charisma and bravado and pure, beautiful stupidity required of his character (and Worcester was fabulous in his manipulation).  He was also rather gorgeous, which didn’t hurt.  Lady Percy was also excellent – you could see all the things she was not saying, and all the ways in which she was, on the one hand, aware that there was nothing she could do, but wasn’t going to make it any easier on Hotspur for all that.  A major disappointment of this production was that they cut her role significantly – she was only in one scene – and also cut all the other female roles; Doll Tearsheet and Lady Mortimer disappeared entirely (and if Lady Northumberland was in this play originally, they cut her, too), and Mistress Quickly lost most of her lines.  Instead, they had three scantily clad tavern dancers who had no lines except for a burlesque number at the start (nothing says Shakespeare like electric guitar and burlesque dancing) and spent all the tavern scenes lounging around and snuggling up to the men in the play.  This was fairly annoying.

Falstaff was really first-class.  I actually had moments of liking him, which usually doesn’t happen.  His wit really shone through, and even his worse characterstics were occasionally endearing.  And Henry IV was also excellent.   I liked the way they showed his first speech as a press release from the palace which Hal and the rest were watching from the seedy pub with the dancers.

A nice bit of staging was the way the court scenes were all held on a platform above the main stage, and the rabble were literally an underclass, below them on the stage.  The battle was fun, too, with a semitransparent screen across the stage and much use of paintball, though Hotspur naturally threw away his gun, the better to face off with Hal knife to knife.  This was totally in character.  There were also parts of the battle being broadcast on the video screen above the stage, which gave a sense of chaos in multiple locations – very effective.

Also, the accents were lovely; Northumberland had a nice, fairly subtle Northern accent; Douglas had a not at all subtle, but pretty convincing, Scottish accent, and Owen Glendower chewed the scenery in a suitably over-the-top Welsh accent.  And John of Lancaster was Orlando from the youth production of As You Like It that we saw last month, which was rather nice (and he looked so appropriately young, too).  The musicians had a lot of fun with sound effects, too, though I’m still bemused at all the electric guitar.  And it was very loud.

Altogether, I think it was quite a good production, and quite an interesting one, let down, a little, by Hal and by the infuriating cutting of all the female parts (and it’s not like there was much there in the first place, after all).  But having said that, I’d definitely see the rest of the tetralogy if they did it.  I’d be curious to know where they’d go with Hal, for one thing.

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