This was the first of the ‘Live From Stratford-upon-Avon’ events that I’ve attended, the live screenings from Stratford modelled on the NT Live series that will, hopefully, by 2020 see the complete works of Shakespeare broadcast internationally from the RSC’s main stage. If the RSC wishes to remain competitive in a new market then it’s a necessary step, and it was a pleasure to see John Wyver’s team doing an extraordinary job with the filming. Despite the obvious awkwardness of filming a production performed on a thrust stage, cameras captured the fine detail that characterises Doran’s work, from the apparently suspended crown which dominated the stage at the production’s opening to the detail of Falstaff’s reaction to his dismissal by Hal. While inevitably some aspects were missed (most notably, the cameras almost missed the ghostly figure of Richard II who hovered over Henry’s shoulder during the opening scene), Live From SuA is clearly already an established and competitive programme.
As always, Gregory Doran’s production had only half an eye on the thrust stage, with the proscenium of the Barbican and the inevitable camera-friendliness of a monodirectional production clearly gestured toward in a forward-facing production that must (particularly during the play extempore, where actors were grouped in a tight semi-circle on the thrust) have been difficult to view from the sides of the stage. Doran’s production followed on directly from his Richard II (though without continuity of casting) in presenting a historically situated, intelligent if traditional take on the play. Nobles wore trenchcoats and leather, Henry’s throne stood prominently upstage, and the use of a scenic background for exterior scenes encouraged a pictorial background. The emphasis on the visual aspect utilised the RSC’s standard historical aesthetic to create a sense of physical materiality. Eastcheap was cluttered with half-empty goblets; Hotspur fiddled with the fastenings on his tunic; Douglas wielded a mace that thudded viscerally on the shields of his enemies. Following the imagery of Richard II, Henry IV returned to practical reality.
The production devoted roughly equal attention to three central performances. Of these, the most revelatory was Trevor White’s unhinged turn as Hotspur. Harry Percy suffered from a personality disorder that saw him fly into uncontrollable rages in which he threw his wife from him, ranted and railed, and even threatened violence to the king. Sean Chapman’s Northumberland and Antony Byrne’s Worcester knew how to control him, grabbing their immature ward by the ear and cowing him into calmness, but clearly this underdeveloped but physically imposing figure was the loose cannon in the rebels’ arsenal. While White’s performance may not have been to everybody’s tastes, he utilised his unpredictability to great effect, particularly as Kate asked him seriously ‘Do you not love me?’ at which he reached out imploringly, clearly aware of the hurt he had caused her but unable to form a functional emotional response. Jennifer Kirby was extraordinary in the difficult role of Lady Percy, tolerant of his outbursts and commanding in her management of his tempers, while also clearly bruised by the continuous mental assaults. Hotspur’s frenzies were best deployed on the battlefield where his fighting style proved to be unhinged, violent and dramatically breathtaking.
He contrasted with Alex Hassell’s Hal, a charismatic prince whose tendency to guffaw at the japes proposed by Poins smacked of no-one so much as Hugh Laurie’s Prince George. Clearly with an eye on the overall arc that will continue over future productions, Hassell was concerned here to establish the more obnoxious Hal, delighting in his rather cruel taunts of Francis and presenting himself with consummate smugness as he revealed Falstaff’s lies. The extent of his self-awareness was not entirely clear: perhaps because of the broadcast, the ‘I know you all’ soliloquy sounded stilted, artificial and rehearsed, leaving ambiguous whether he was trying out an idea or genuinely confiding. One of the difficulties of the RST stage is that the actor needs to engage with an audience sitting below and above on all sides; on screen, therefore, the asides tended to rather look like actors were gazing nonchalantly and even pridefully into the heavens, which undoubtedly spoiled some of the intimate effect. Hassell seemed more strained in the Eastcheap scenes, giving a Hal whose performance of caddishness was always on, and he came into his own instead in the second half of the play. Jasper Britton was a physically capable, tempestuous king who grabbed his son by the throat and in whose presence Hal’s bravado drained away, revealing the dignified, controlled prince who dominated the battlefield.
The third central performance, inevitably, was Antony Sher as Falstaff. Surprisingly, given the calibre of the actor, this Falstaff was disappointingly derivative, offering little new following superlative performances by Simon Russell Beale (melancholy) and Roger Allam (Bullingdon Club alumnus gone to seed) in recent productions. Sher’s strength, however, was in a low-key good humour. This Falstaff loved his roleplaying and, in the epic 2.4, revelled in his performances of the King and Hal, in both his deliberate and overt lies, and in the fawning self-presentation of himself to the tavern residents. Falstaff was already well declined physically – he moved slowly and awkwardly, his voice slurred over syllables – and relied thus on his wit and repartee, evoking the vitality of his youth even while foregrounding how far past his prime he was. The high spirits of the play extempore ended in a deflated Hal saying ‘I do, I will’ with a resigned conclusivity, leaving Falstaff imploring his young charge while the rest of the assembled crowd dispersed.
Between these three performances, Doran established a dynamic for 1 Henry IV that extended the well-established contours of the play to extremes, establishing early the decline of Falstaff while upping the stakes between Hotspur and Hal. The final battle was the finest of Terry King’s choreographed battles that I’ve ever seen, a breathless and frantically fast, no-holds-barred brawl that, at times, saw four swords in play simultaneously. There was no attempt at honour or at character beats – once they clashed weapons, the two men swung at each other as quickly and violently as they could until Hotspur finally fell victim to a repeated series of slashes. Where other productions attempt to make points about chivalry or prowess, this was quite literally a survival of the fittest, from which Hal emerged triumphant.
Much of the play set up strands that would be continued in Part Two. The most unusual interpretive decision was a section of rewriting at the end of the major Eastcheap scene, introducing the Lord Chief Justice alongside the Sheriff. Importing lines from elsewhere, one of the accompanying pilgrims identified Bardolph as one of the Gadshill robbers. The Lord Chief Justice ordered his arrest and Hal intervened, finally striking the Justice in rage and causing the official to leave in high dudgeon. This, of course, sets up the action referred to in Part Two, but also established an early comradely bond between Hal and Joshua Richards’ entertainingly dour Bardolph which one hopes will be alluded to if and when the company arrive at Henry V. The Eastcheap crowd were lively, the standout being Paola Dionisotti’s purse-lipped Mistress Quickly who alternated between nagging and coddling her guests.
This was an efficient rather than outstanding production, enlivened by some fine central performances and a solid cast but offering relatively little new in terms of interpretation. It’ll be fascinating to see how this company develop in Part Two however, and whether this is a play in its own right or the staging post for a much broader arc.