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Theatre Amp Dance
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Barbican, London — review
From the Financial Times of Mon, 15 Dec 2014 17:48:24 GMT
Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal©Kwame Lestrade

Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

There is no shortage of corpulent, white-whiskered old chaps around at the moment, but the twinkly gent now in residence at the Barbican is no Santa Claus. And his twinkle is deceptive. This is Antony Sher giving a magnificent and exquisitely pitched performance as Falstaff at the centre of Gregory Doran’s Henry IV productions. Sher’s Falstaff, short of breath and broad of girth, is a masterpiece of venal, duplicitous charm — untroubled by conscience at the heart of a drama in which anguished conscience drives the action. He is at once the best and worst character on stage: a paradox apt for these two great plays which thrive on counterpoint, contradiction and ambivalence.

And Doran’s fluent RSC staging (seen in Stratford in April) rolls the contrasting worlds through one another, with court scenes bleeding into the Eastcheap tavern, so emphasising Shakespeare’s masterly evocation of a whole country, thrumming with life, but riven and restless.

Doran’s production is studded with sympathetic, rounded performances and revels in the famous comic scenes, such as the mock interview between Prince Hal and his father, with Falstaff playing the king enthroned on a bar stool. But it also draws out their place in the bigger picture. Falstaff’s glee at playing the monarch contrasts sharply with the palpable agony of Jasper Britton’s actual king, tormented by guilt, fearful that he has failed to quell the very disorder that impelled him to usurp the throne and given to volcanic rage. The contrasting rebellions of the two sons also emerges vividly, Hal’s boozy revolt paralleled by Hotspur’s bloody insurgency.

We are, with Hal, more inclined to spend time in the tavern than facing the grave and damaged responsibilities of the court. But, with Hal too, we shift allegiance as battle approaches. In Alex Hassell’s deft transformation one scene is key. It’s the moment when Sher’s Falstaff, with blithe callousness, dismisses his ragged recruits as cannon fodder. Hassell’s Hal stares at his old friend in horrified silence.

There are dull stretches and a few flat notes, particularly as the tone grows more sombre. The downside of Trevor White’s near-crazed Hotspur, for instance, is that you scarcely mourn him. But this is a mature and beautifully detailed production, through which rebellion and turmoil roll as individuals and country grope towards a sort of stability.


barbican.org.uk; rsc.org.uk



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