Henry IV Part One

A fine Henry V is followed by a fine Henry IV Part I; and the object of doing the plays in this order is again illuminated by Terry Hands's emphasis in his direction on the character of Prince Hal. From the point at which the young Prince, having consented to take part in a thoroughly unsavoury escapade, speaks his improbable lines about mixing with Falstaff and his wretched mob only to appear brighter when he had packed them up, he becomes a young hero. As his father Henry IV, Emrys James has doffed the graces he wielded as Chorus and becomes a gruff, piggy-eyed, impatient monarch shiftily unsure of his own position, able to persuade himself only by violence of speech and action. Alan Howard's Hal so suggests his splendid future in even his most squalid activities that they hardly seem squalid at all, but always capable, by a suitable stretch of the imagination, of a decent interpretation.

Matching the Prince on the other side of the field is a splendid Hotspur by Stuart Wilson. The balance between these two is made the main interest of the play; as the production is cast in a heroic mould and Bolingbroke is hard to show as much as a hero, this works well. Mr. Wilson puts so much passion into his interpretation that at one point, in the Shrewsbury camp, he seems on the point of a seizure. Even in his moments of intimacy with his wife (beautifully done as a wilful teenage girl by Ann Hasson) he puts action before tenderness.

Falstaff is played by Brewster Mason in the familiar image we all know and like - vast and grey-bearded and decked in what were once smart crimson clothes, his lawn sleeves now a little stained, his coat unlikely ever to meet again round his belly. Mr. Mason has a quietly gentlemanly manner that suits the part well; when he accuses the Hostess about the picking of his pockets, he is irritated, not furious. He is properly accoutred for the field, however, having no doubt outfitted himself from the profits of his recruiting swindles.

The rest of his crew are also conventionally played, with a lively Poins from Trevor Peacock, a hoarse Bardolph from Tim Wylton who gets more fun from his voice than from his face. Maureen Pryor is Mistress Quickly and Peter Bourke is Francis the drawer, but we must wait a while to see him better displayed.

The battles (fight director, Robert Anderson) are fought in mist without the presence of any soldiery but the principals. There is one particularly effective moment when the gigantic Douglas (Dan Meaden) looms out of the murk upstage like a science-fiction monster to threaten the King.

The production is played on a bare, raked stage with a minimum of furniture. It is remarkable how pictorial Mr. Hands and his designer Farrah can make it through action alone. When the King extends a down-turned forefinger to Northumberland with a cold "we licence your departure" and Northumberland and Hotspur reluctantly fall to their knees before they leave, no further detail is needed; a whole picture of court procedure springs up. Stewart Leviton's atmospheric lighting plays a great part. This is what Shakespearean theatre must have been like if it ever attained the professional standards of the RSC.

Financial Times, 25.4.75.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry IV Part I