The tale of troubled Henry, threatened by rebellion, haunted by guilt at Richard’s murder and exasperated by the follies of his son Hal, is one of the great Shakespearean chronicles. Wild Hal, warlike Hotspur and the irresistibly disgraceful Falstaff shine vivid down the centuries. The play is rich in magnificent, eloquent insults: bed-presser, bull’s pizzle, stockfish! Mad-headed ape, whoreson greasy tallow patch, vile standing-tuck! Between those and the tremendous battle scenes it has an honourable record of being the route by which a crafty parent introduces a restless boy to the History plays: a comedy, a ripping yarn.
Greg Doran directs as ever with a lovely clarity and humour, never flagging but not hurrying either. Just over three hours with the interval, this production gives even the smallest character space and time to breathe and expand. There is of course Antony Sher’s Falstaff : who when he claps on a leather hat above his capacious overcoat, has the air of a large ambulating mushroom sprouting curly grey fungus of beard and hair. Falstaff’s baseness is not dodged or lightened as it sometimes has been. Sher, in a slow rich slur, gives full value to the fat knight’s Just-William talent for fantasy and excuse, and we laugh with him as he fences with the less adept young Prince.
But when he boasts of his earnings from frightened citizens with his press-gang protection racket, filling his military company with the dregs of prison and gutter who can’t pay, Doran gives us something startling. Behind Falstaff and his handcart picnic files a dim-lit parade of shuffling and staggering figures. He shrugs that they will fill graves as well as any, shrugs at other deaths with no intention of dying himself, a sociable sociopath – “I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter had – give me life!”. His sermon about the uselessness of honour – which can be done with quiet intelligent horror as Roger Allam did at the Globe – is chucked out by this old bastard as just another canting fantasy. Insouciant selfishness goes too far: when Hal finds, mid-battle, that it’s a bottle in his friend’s holster, not a pistol, the lad’s visible frustration suddenly feels like one of the subtle, important, corners of the play : it foreshadows the rejection he will inflict on the old man in Part II.
But there are many such corners and hints in Alex Hassell’s closely built performance as Hal: his head hung in shame at his father’s rebukes, his impatience with idleness – “The land is burning!”‘ and his sudden, boyish plea for peace or single-combat after he has seen the state of Falstaff’s half-dead soldiery. Trevor White’s Hotspur, on the other hand, turns no corners and never changes: he is played white-blond, pale-eyed, a hypermanic Roundhead to Hal’s sensual cavalier. He leaps and punches the air and yells “Yesss!” and in a terrifyingly arranged fight (arranger Terry King surpasses himself) at one stage is belabouring Hal with both swords at once, crazy-manic and fearless. This is not a likeable Hotspur, not least when he hurls around his imploring wife. Some will mourn his lack of heroic seriousness, but it is credible: he’s very young.
Doran’s pace and shaping of the play is superb. Great humour shades to seriousness. Hotspur’s baiting of the Druidically solemn self-satisfied Glendower (Joshua Richard, very New Age ) quietens as Nia Gwynne sings in Welsh to a gentle harp. Hotspur scorns and insults the singing, not knowing it will be his dirge. The roll-on tavern scenes are fun, with Paola Dionisotti giving a sharp Dot-Cottonish Quickly, Joshua Richards a pricelessly laconic Bardolph and Elliott Barnes-Worrell haring around beautifully in waiterly panic as Francis. But even as Sher in his slow-spoken querulous pomp weaves Falstaff’s web of fantastic excuses, we cut to King Henry: almost weeping with frustration and remorse, gasping out his longing to atone the murder, the words “Holy Land” snatching his very breath.
Clouds scud overhead or hang as smoke over the open fields of England (a tangle of bare branches against blue, glimpsed behind the battered barnlike back wall). The final battles are action-movie stuff, Douglas the crazed Scotsman flailing some sort of murderous Celtic shillelagh, flashes and smoke and crashing across the vast room. Jerks of compassion as Hal kneels by his dead rival and thinks to mourn Falstaff are diffused as the fat one rolls upright and desecrates Hotspur’s corpse (oh yes, this is no jolly Falstaff, not after a while). The whole thing is masterly: with intense, scholarly, humane concern and care Doran teases out spirit and character , finds nuggets of meaning and sorrow. This, and Part II (review follows) will be live in cinemas and streamed into schools. Such permanence is well-earned.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 6 September
Part I in participating cinemas 14 May