Henry IV Part I

Although this year's Stratford programme consists of all the Falstaff plays, Flastaff has yet to emerge as the principal figure. From this production and accounts of the opening Henry V (which I missed), it seems that Terry Hands's main purpose is to investigate the crab-like growth of Prince Hal.

Stage tradition has bequeathed us a fixed idea of Hal as agile, secretive, and cold-blooded, no matter what Falstaff may say about his drinking habits. Most unsympathetically, he has got everything worked out from the start - and Mr Hands challenges this assumption most fruitfully. Alan Howard's Hal is not the usual slumming princeling. He may suffer from attacks of remorse, but he is undoubtedly having a whale of a time in Eastcheap. The inexhaustible insults he heaps on Falstaff arise from affection, and the notorious "I know you all" soliloquy is more in the nature of a good resolution than a real plan of action.

We first see him pulling back a horse blanket to awaken Brewster Mason's sleeping Falstaff; not rousing the old monster with a kick, but gently imitating a buzzing insect and pouring him a drink. The relationship is built largely on physical contact, which softens the harshness of the lines; episodes like the robbery come over as a delightful game they play together rather than a trick at Falstaff's expense. Mason's Falstaff fits well into this pattern: not an earthily cumbersome figure but a companion as buoyant as a balloon, celebrating his verbal triumphs with light-footed capers of self-congratulation. Periodically the games turn serious at points marking Hal's progress. "Art thou not horribly afeared?" The long silence after Falstaff's question speaks for itself.

To the question of why Hal dropped out of court life, Emrys James's King supplies one answer. He is a father any son would be glad to escape; a snarling, sardonic, guilt-laden autocrat preserving much of the hyena-like quality brought by this actor to King John. Throwing a coin down to enforce an argumentative point with Hotspur he breaks his formal exit to come back and pick it up. If any strain of meanness lingers in Hal's character, it is clear where he got it from.

The production, in short, encourages you to concentrate on the old values of individual character rather than on any panorama of English society. Farrah's stage is a slightly tilted wooden platform that is apt to become progressively encumbered with the debris of previous scenes, including a gigantic stepladder where Hal and the King are periodically stationed as eavesdroppers on distant events. The King observes Eastcheap; Hal studies the apoplectic excesses of the dreaded Hotspur (Stuart Wilson). This is the show's one directorial licence and it is unnecessary. There is enough in the text to demonstrate how speedily the adversaries' intelligence service worked.

The production wholly achieves its first purpose in showing Howard's mooncalf Hal developing step by step to the modest chivalry of Shrewsbury. Perhaps in obedience to this, a good many other parts are reduced to supporting roles. Most interesting among them are George Baker's icily, amiable Worcester, revealed as the main agent of Hotspur's downfall, and Ann Hasson's spitfire Lady Percy, whose dealings with Hotspur suggests the married lives of Kate and Petruchio.

Stuart Wilson as Hotspur

The Times, 25.4.75.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry IV Part I