Theatre Review: Henry IV Parts I and II @ The Barbican

I went to see Richard II as part of the RSC’s King and Country Cycle, which presented Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V over the course of three days.

What. A. Disappointment. What a total disappointment. Before the first part of Gregory Doran’s Henry IV, I was almost squealing with excitement. Having witnessed David Tennant’s stunning Richard II the night before, I could barely sit still in my – fantastically upgraded (thanks Barbican box office) – seat out of expectation of what was to come. Sir Anthony Sher as Falstaff, Alex Hassell as Hal, Jasper Britton again as Bolingbroke. This was all too much. I was sure that I stood at the pearly gates of theatrical heaven, about to step inside.

It’s now the next day, and I have just walked out of Henry IV Part II. Henry V begins in just an hour and a half and, although I have my ticket tucked securely in my inside pocket, I am seriously debating just taking the next train home and getting an early night instead to spare myself further disappointment. What happened? Six and a half hours of one of the laziest, most pedestrian productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen, that’s what happened.

These two plays, the second and third parts of the RSC’s King and Country cycle, should have used the unqualified success of Richard II as a springboard to greater heights. They should have delved deep into a more panoramic picture of medieval England, drawn forth a host of compelling characters, and left one gibbering with excitement for tonight’s Henry V. Instead, the memory of Richard II hangs over them like a shadow – in more ways than one – and they pale in comparison.

How Sher has screwed a book out of his role as Falstaff I will never understand. In what should have been the magnetic, illustrious glue that held the rest of the plays together, he produces a tediously slow, horribly grating and thoroughly unimaginative performance that belies his stellar Shakespearean history. Ruddy-faced and scruffily clothed, he waddles about the stage, delivering his lines with a stultifying labour, made all the worse for its overt self-importance. The tavern scenes – which should be the carousing, lively, hysterical high point of the plays – are excruciatingly lacklustre. Sher may well be one of the country’s most esteemed theatrical knights, but this is laziness. Pure laziness.

Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is better, but not much better. There is a tangible lack of chemistry between Hassell and Sher and their interactions seem so forced that when Hal eventually cast Falstaff aside at the end of Part II, the latter’s dismay is thoroughly bewildering. This is far from the emotional tale of unlikely friends, torn apart by responsibility and circumstance that it should be. Hassell is strongest in scenes with Britton’s Henry IV, who has thankfully maintained the stern majesty he found in Richard II. As disappointed father and errant son, the two display a compassion and a sensitivity that is sorely lacking elsewhere.

Matthew Needham’s Hotspur has some charismatic anger, Sean Chapman’s Northumberland is appropriately uncompromising and Antony Byrne excels as a ferrety, wily Worcester, but these are the highlights of an otherwise unimpressive ensemble. Perhaps remembrance of Tennant’s Richard doomed them all to relative mediocrity before they even began, but one still expects far, far more from the RSC.

Where has Doran’s imagination gone? Where has the impish playfulness that made Richard II so watchable disappeared to? Why are the fight scenes so bizarrely uncombative? Why has the evocative live music been replaced with an infinitely less rousing recorded alternative? And why have I read review after review hailing this as a masterpiece when it is so patently as pedestrian a Shakespeare of such high production values can be?

The worst thing about all of this is that I am now about to walk into Henry V (of course I’m still going) weighed down with trepidation rather than buoyed by anticipation.

The lone French chap sitting next to me summed it up perfectly after the final curtain. When the undeserved second round of applause had died down, he turned to me and, with a shrug of the shoulders and a small sigh, simply said: “not good enough”. I can’t help but agree.



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