Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, are more two halves of one play than two separate works in and of themselves. Part 1 feels just the beginning of the story, as Hal starts to take on his responsibilities as Prince of Wales, and Part 2 is mostly full of subplot involving Falstaff’s escapades. As an epic work, lasting 5 hours, the plays follow the journey of Hal, Prince Harry of Wales, soon to be King Henry V, and his relationship with his disapproving and dying father and the bad influence of mischievous Sir John Falstaff.
Transferred from the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford, the Barbican is certainly a bigger, and a different, space to fill. The set is both intimate and grand, the lighting design of Tim Mitchell transporting us from majestic cathedral to royal bedchamber. However this set, with the inclusion of balconies, is mainly unused by the cast, who spend almost the entire of the two plays stage centre, and a large of that time on a small rostra. It certainly helps to define the space, but I feel cheated that not more levels, which are readily available, and varied stagings, were used to tell this story. This may be as a result of the transfer from the Swan’s thrust-style theatre to a wider and less immersive space at the Barbican, but it was undoubtedly a detriment to the productions as a whole. With this change in space, the direction and the staging of the action also seemed to suffer. A majority of the blocking remained flat and symmetrical , when a more dynamic and energetic staging is required.
At times the performance felt perfectly like a matinee, with a lack of gusto, honesty and depth to the piece. I was waiting for the plays to get gritty, but was left underwhelmed when Hotspur’s rebellion hit, with some limp fighting to boot. At times I was struggling to immerse; perhaps with the focus on the light and comedy of Falstaff’s shenanigans, we are left without a more in-depth telling of the story of Hal and his father.
Antony Sher as Falstaff is great in the role, pompous but so charming, and absolutely saves this production. His double act with Hal in Part 1 is fantastic, and he is so watchable. Alex Hassell as Hal plays well for the laughs, but we are left wanting more in his journey towards monarch. There were however some very touching moments, including a fantastic scene with Jasper Britton, Henry IV, in Part 2. Britton is captivating in the role of the dying king and holds the audience throughout; he commands the stage with a grandeur expected of his role. There are some ridiculous and bemusing characterisations, including Anthony Byrne as Pistol, Jim Hooper as the hilarious Justice Silence, and Oliver Ford Davies as Justice Shallow.
Although filled with some great acting, RSC’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 needs to be more raw and energetic. With some touching moments and witty comedy, mostly in the form of Sir John Falstaff, the plays are unquestionably enjoyable and accessible to audiences, but are lacking in a bit of grit.
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 24 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.