I have, during the course of writing my thesis at Cardiff University, been immersed in Shakespeare’s early plays, such as the Henry VI trilogy, and have analysed his style in the context of imitation and collaboration. It was therefore refreshing to see a production of a play in which Shakespeare refined the history genre and found his own distinct authorial voice, while surpassing the dramatic language of his contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele and Thomas Kyd. I had no misgivings about the fact that the University of South Wales decided to conflate the first and second parts of Henry IV, for the first part would feel lost without its sequel, and the Dering manuscript, prepared around 1613, suggests that this was sometimes the case even in Shakespeare’s day. I was uneasy about the notion of modernising aspects of the play, given its emphasis on a span of history circa 1403, but more on that later… I do struggle with gender swapping in casting (a staple in student productions, it seems), unless it serves a dramatic or didactic purpose – with Henry Bolingbroke himself played by a woman here – but then I suppose this is a mere subversion of the all-male casting of Shakespeare’s theatre.
The play concerns the king’s struggle to maintain order in England, as factious rebels attack from across England, Wales and Scotland. This production began with the cast clutching at a crown that dangled above them, and from the off the emphasis was very much on the fact that ‘uneasy lies the head that wears’ the troublesome crown of England. In this respect, director Richard Hand’s thematic emphasis reminded me somewhat of Roman Polanski’s film version of the Scottish play. My uncertainties about the modernisation of Henry IV quickly dissipated during the anachronistic comic interchanges in which Sir John Falstaff is foiled by the seeming entrance of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Or the superb scene in which Falstaff treated the audience to a rendition of another king, Elvis, which was, rather paradoxically, laced with poignancy, as other members of the cast attired themselves for war. Soon, there would be ‘no more cakes and ale’. Indeed, the first half, which was utterly hilarious, constantly foreshadowed the somberness of the play’s conclusion, and the director did a fantastic job in highlighting such ominous moments as Falstaff’s assertion that, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’, followed by Hal’s gloomy response, ‘I do. I will’…
The cast, for the most part, did well in making Shakespeare’s sometimes knotted language accessible to the audience. Having worked with Scott Patrick before, I was delighted to discover that he was playing Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most revered comic creation perhaps, next to Bottom. The man’s side-splitting improvisations made me break character once in a production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I expected big things, and (it’s safe to say) he certainly delivered. In fact, his presence often dominated the stage like a colossus, and this huge bombard of comic brilliance was complemented by evident understanding of the significance of certain speeches (and great subtlety), such as Falstaff’s catechism on the concept of honour. Simon King gave a very assured performance as the ruggedly handsome future king, and I must mention Poppy Sturgess as Mistress Quickly. She evinced great comic timing throughout her scenes and had a real natural flair for stage humour.
The second half, being more sombre, did not quite have the same impact as the first (a consensus long shared among literary critics regarding the second part of Henry IV), and this might have had something to do with the maladroitness of stage combat. Though Thomas Nashe praised the staging of ‘all stratagems of war’, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Jonson mocked actors who ‘with three rusty swords, And help of some few foot-and-half-foot words, Fight over York, and Lancaster’s long jars’. Still, the second half brought to fruition the banishment of Falstaff and the crowning of Harry, in an ambiguous resolution, which transcended jingoistic interpretations of Henry V. The audience left smiling, and I hope that the actors and crew enjoyed a great deal of sack in deserved celebration. As Shakespeare might say, they’re likely to have woken up in their drowsy beds recalling ‘a mass of things, but nothing distinctly’. The audience, and myself, won’t forget the details of this enchanting production anytime soon.
See the production flyer here.