(Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010)
My first encounter with Henry IV was via the BBC’s The Hollow Crown last year, when I was unexpectedly captivated by this story of a disappointed father and his wayward son. Afterwards I wished I’d had the sense to see Dominic Dromgoole’s 2010 production at the Globe (especially since I did see their 2012 Henry V, in which Jamie Parker reprised the role of an older, wiser Hal). However, my uncle very kindly bought me the DVDs of Henry IV for Christmas and I curled up with them this week, with ever-increasing pleasure.
Having already seen Parker on stage, I knew he would be good – though Henry V gave little warning of his gift for rambunctious comedy. The greatest treat of the entire production was, without a doubt, Roger Allam’s Falstaff. I haven’t seen Allam do Shakespeare before and I was ravished by his command of the language. It’s very rare to see someone speak Shakespeare’s prose so effortlessly that they seem to be adlibbing. He’s a joy to watch.
This is also my chance to bring your attention to the Globe’s series of filmed plays, which you might not be aware of. They’re a godsend for those of us who haven’t seen them live. It’s the first time that I’ve watched filmed live performances and, though I wasn’t sure what they’d be like, I’ve been very impressed. You do sacrifice the control of a studio performance, but at the Globe the audience is vital to the success of a play and you can savour all the interaction between actors and groundlings. Even though it’s filmed live, the sound is crisp and clear, and the camerawork is excellent. There are so many close-ups of soliloquies and reaction shots that you actually see more of the play than you would if you were there in person. And of course you get the traditional merriment of the Globe’s fanfares, songs and the joyous closing dance.
As I did before, I want to deal with each part of the play individually. In each case there are certain comparisons I can’t help making between this version and The Hollow Crown. Each is excellent in its own way, and the joy of Shakespeare is that it’s possible to take a single text and draw very different moods and spirits from it. Full of energy, verve and bawdy humour, the Globe has transformed Henry IV into several hours’ worth of comic brilliance.
HENRY IV: PART 1
If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved… but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff… banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack and banish all the world.
All is riotous life and laughter at the Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap, where Sir John Falstaff (Roger Allam) holds court among a motley gang of thieves, drunkards, rogues and whores. Among his followers is young Hal (Jamie Parker), the wastrel Prince of Wales who, to his father’s despair, finds more amusement in this kind of company than he does at the palace. But the time is coming when Hal can’t idly shrug off his responsibility any more. His father Henry IV (Oliver Cotton) has offended the powerful northern lords with his heavy-handed treatment of them: intended to assert his authority, it merely reminds them that they gave Henry the throne and can take it away just as easily. Rebellion flares up, with Northumberland’s vigorous son Hotspur (Sam Crane) at its head; and as Henry faces the spectre of civil war again, he despairs of his eldest son ever becoming the kind of man he needs to be. But Hal has more merit than expected, and sets out to prove himself both to his father and to his realm.
It’s great to see two interpretations of the same play so close together, because you can really appreciate the choices the directors have made. The Hollow Crown‘s Henry IV was grand and serious – though there were moments of comedy at the Boar’s Head, of course – and you never really doubted that Tom Hiddleston’s thoughtful Hal was going to come through in the end. At the Globe, by contrast, everything is much more raucous and bawdy and comically sprawling. Hal has completely thrown himself into drunken buffoonery: life is just a jest and a joke. That even goes for his soliloquy about the sun breaking through base clouds, which in The Hollow Crown was delivered as a quiet promise of inner virtue, but which Parker delivers as an expansive drunken flight of fancy, in which we smile to see the feckless prince dream of greatness.
Parker really is a great comedian: he’s a charming rascal who makes his first appearance on stage with trousers round his ankles, and who is always ready for a laugh. You get the feeling that he genuinely enjoys the Boar’s Head; and that he really is part of the furniture there. And this difference between the two versions of Hal – quietly self-aware, versus effusive scoundrel – is echoed in two very different Falstaffs. If you remember, the BBC’s Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) surprised me with his pettiness and spite. Driven by a thirst for money and recognition, he was merely playing at friendship with Hal. When he fell from grace, I felt that it was only what he deserved.
But the Globe – the Globe! Roger Allam’s Falstaff was delightful: the stage lit up whenever he came on. Here is a Falstaff that you can well believe Hal loves: puffed-up and bombastic, but giving off such radiant bonhomie and humour that he can be forgiven anything. Here is a man who has fallen into vice and simply can’t summon up the energy to get out. Thieving, whoring and sack are the props of his unsatisfactory old age and, when he dreams of being given a title, and swears that he’ll mend his ways, I believed him. Or at least, I believed that he believed it. With his endless repertoire of similes, his pitch-perfect comic timing and his relationship with the pustulent Bardolph (Paul Rider), this Falstaff had something of Blackadder about him. And the audience loved him for it. I loved him too – and for all his folly, I could understand why Hal found him such amusing company.
The rest of the cast were slightly overshadowed but also did a great job; the only flaw was that some of the female actors were occasionally a bit on the shrill side and seemed to be shouting rather than projecting their voices. That’s probably exacerbated by the recording. But for the most part everyone was great. Sam Crane was an impatient, impetuous Hotspur whose long diatribes were delivered with scarcely a pause for breath; while Sean Kearns was an impressive Glendower, tall and imposing, who delivered a resonant song in Welsh on his entrance. And, on that note, you come to realise how talented the cast must be, because (apart from the lead roles) they not only have to double up their parts, but they also have to sing or play music as required. Claire van Kampen, the musical director, had come up with some great songs, especially a set of rip-roaring tub-thumpers to be bawled out at the Boar’s Head.
This first part was the perfect balance of comedy and action; and I really wish I’d got to see it live on stage. It would have been utterly fabulous.
HENRY IV: PART 2
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awak’d, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace; …
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
(Hal – Act V, Scene 5)
Although Hotspur has been defeated, Part 2 opens on a note of uncertainty. With the battle scarcely over, rumours spread like wildfire across England. Northumberland, waiting to hear about his son’s fate, is assured of Hotspur’s triumph mere moments before the arrival of a weary messenger with the bitter, sobering truth. Determined to fight on against Henry IV, whom he believes unworthy of the crown he helped to win, Northumberland heads north to gather followers with the support of the Archbishop of York. Hal’s younger brother John of Lancaster (Joseph Timms) is sent to deal with these rebels, while Hal returns to his old haunts and his old friends at the Boar’s Head. But times are changing. He is beginning to see Falstaff and his companions as the wasters that they are, and it’s becoming clear that his father and his country have the greater need of him.
Having now seen two versions of Henry IV: Part 2, I’m confirmed in the opinion I formed from The Hollow Crown, in that I don’t think it’s as good as the first part. That’s not to criticise Dromgoole or his cast: they rise magnificently to the challenge of the text. But it can’t be coincidental that both the Globe and the BBC did such a good job with Part 1 and then struggled to come up with a comparably strong Part 2. The plot is too disjointed to flow smoothly; we don’t see enough of either Hal or Henry IV; and there’s a higher proportion of self-consciously ‘comic’ scenes which don’t always work.
Having said that, if anyone can draw the humour out of a situation, it’s the cast at the Globe. Their natural aptitude for comedy means that some of the clowning scenes are almost too over-the-top; like the scene with Pistol (Sam Crane again) at the Boar’s Head, which degenerates into a lot of shouting and mad running around. They come into their own with scenes where humour can be subtly added – the sections with the quavering Robert Shallow (William Gaunt), for example. I enjoyed those bits much more here than I did in The Hollow Crown. The more poignant moments are difficult to do well in a theatre like this, where acting has to be larger than life in order for the audience to see it. You can’t act on the subtle emotional scale that made some moments in The Hollow Crown so compelling. Even so, Jamie Parker reins in his natural heartiness and summons up real pathos for the moment when Hal is called to his father’s deathbed. And, thanks to the close-up shots, I was able to see some of the smaller details that I would have missed if I were in the audience – Hal stroking his dying father’s hand, for example, or Falstaff’s trembling disbelief in the final scene as his beloved Hal finally repudiates him.
Roger Allam remains dominant in Part 2, sweeping all before him. He seems slightly different, however – more forceful and virile than in Part 1, perhaps. There are times (especially in his splendid opening scene) when he looks more like a swaggering Petruchio than old, fat, self-interested Falstaff. And there are moments when a slightly more unpleasant side peeks through beneath the bonhomie. Ultimately, however, he’s rascally and appealing, with the kind of flaws and weaknesses we can all sympathise with – braggartly, fond of admiration and overly self-important, he reflects back our own vices. Yes, he’s a weak piece of flesh, but you can’t help loving him for it – and when he hears that his Hal has finally become king, his joy has a portion of self interest in it, but it’s also sheer simple delight. And that’s what makes the new King Henry’s renunciation, in this version, so shocking, especially after Parker’s earlier merriness. As ever, the repudiation is softened by Henry’s resolution to receive his friends again once they’ve mended their ways; but, as Robert Shallow shrewdly notes, Falstaff is too far gone along his path to change it now. At the play’s close, Allam shows us a broken man, his feet swept from under him; and, because Falstaff has been such a lovable rogue throughout both parts of the play, I found myself truly pitying him.
In short, then, this is a wonderful way to get the atmosphere of the Globe even if you can’t go there in person. And if you’ve watched The Hollow Crown I’d really recommend watching this because it’s so fascinating to see how the same text can be handled in such different ways. It’s probably best summed up by saying that in The Hollow Crown the story is told with a tragic flavour: it’s serious, intense, soul-searching stuff in which young Hal and his redemption is the prevailing theme. At the Globe, on the other hand, it’s full of panache and comic bravura, with Falstaff bestriding the play like a colossus.
If you haven’t seen any version of Henry IV before, I would be inclined to suggest starting with The Hollow Crown, if only because their sets and locations allow you to follow the story slightly more easily than you can on an empty stage. But on the other hand the Globe will offer a much lighter, rowdier version of the play; along with the excellent Allam, who I think has just ruined me for any other Falstaff.