Henry IV Part I at the RSC

My mum and I had a most enjoyable afternoon yesterday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where we went to see a brilliant matinee performance of Henry IV Part I, one of Shakespeare’s most popular historical plays. If you’re planning on seeing the performance yourself, be warned that this post contains spoilers! It was a lovely sunny day as we headed into the theatre, and we got a great view of people out enjoying the sunshine from the second floor:

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The opening of the play couldn’t have been better, and immediately captured the attention of a full house. The theatre went completely dark and a deep, rumbling, menacing soundtrack tinged with churchbells commenced, as a number of monks strode out onto the stage, hoods up, singing a low-pitched chant and each holding a candle that illuminated their cowled faces in a rather sinister sort of way. They formed a ring around an apparently dead man lying face down on the floor in front of a crucifix; this man then stands up and takes the crown from a lectern in front of him and we realise that this is Henry IV. This was the stage just before the play started, to give you an idea (obviously I couldn’t take photos during the performance):

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This comparatively little-known king doesn’t actually appear that much in the play that bears his name. I later learned that this is because of his reputation as the ‘Usurper King’ – he had murdered his predecessor, Richard II, in prison, as he was a nasty character, and Parliament had made him king. Many thought, therefore, that he had no real right to the throne. Shakespeare was writing 190 years after the events outlined in the play, but the monarchy was still very tetchy about the story of Henry IV (they didn’t want people thinking it was ok to overthrow them, after all) and had even had one historian thrown into prison for daring to write a book about him. Glorifying him in any way was a definite no-no, so Shakespeare downplayed his role and the focus is largely on his son Hal, the future Henry V – with whom there was certainly no issue, given his heroic victory at Agincourt.

The story alternates between serious – the King contending with rebellion from the hot-headed Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland – and comic, with the hilarious exploits of Falstaff and Hal, Prince of Wales, together with their little band of followers. It is these comic scenes that provide the most entertainment (and they were considerably easier to follow for those of us unfamiliar with the plot).

The real triumph of the performance was Sir Antony Sher as the roguish Falstaff. As with many of Shakespeare’s comic characters he was far more than just a buffoon; as well as being funny to the point that he had the audience frequently laughing out loud at quite some volume, there was considerable depth and intelligence to the character and Sher did a marvellous job of conveying this subtlety. I thought Falstaff and Mistress Quickly seemed familiar from somewhere, and it was because I had seen The Merry Wives of Windsor (the musical) years ago at the RSC, played by Simon Callow and Dame Judi Dench. Apparently Queen Elizabeth I had so enjoyed Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II that she’d asked Shakespeare to feature him in another play, which he did in Merry Wives. I’d loved Falstaff in that, thanks to Callow’s characteristically exuberant performance, but Sher was every bit as good and totally stole the show.

In a superbly executed and exhilarating finale, the King and his men meet the rebels in battle and the stage becomes a battlefield, soldiers and archers racing across from all angles and dramatic sword fights taking place between key characters. This was all against the backdrop of flashing lights and dramatic thundery music, which really made you feel that you were in the midst of the action. It was cleverly done, and as the play drew to a conclusion our thoughts immediately turned to Part II, which is also on at the RSC this season. We’re already planning to go and see it, and in the meantime, I have another programme for my RSC programme folder! All in all, a splendid performance that reminds us that the RSC’s fantastic reputation is very much deserved.

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