February 9, 2023

O for a muse of firewater! Henry IV Part II at the Barbican

It is a dilemma that all civilised Londoners face: a night at the theatre or a night in the stews?  You have spent the day suffering the soul-crushing humiliations of employment or the exhausting travails of joblessness.  Now night is falling, livers are rumbling, and from Southwark to Soho the greatest city on Earth is coming alive.  Do you head up West to do your duty as a citizen of the capital of World Theatre, but face the possibility of a disappointing performance?  Or do you take the safe option of drinking yourself insensible until you wake – damp but curiously invigorated – in a gutter somewhere in Cheapside?  Your reviewer has found the answer: do both.  

Invited by a semi-alcoholic journalist friend to Henry IV part II, we took the precaution of arming ourselves with a couple of bottles of sherry, smuggled into the Barbican down our trousers.  I have always found that a small measure, swigged discretely every time it is mentioned by its characters, is the ideal way to enjoy this play.  True, our neighbours in the stalls were appalled.  One particularly pinched, anus-mouthed old lady muttered about summoning staff to eject us.  But then were we not here to listen to the great words of a playwright who exhorts us ‘to forswear thin potations and addict yourself to sherries’?  A man whose original audience would have just stumbled in plastered from a bear-baiting?  Whose pub-scenes display the familiarity of a regular follower of Bacchus?  This Falstaffian drinking game is pitched just right: by the end of the play your bottle will be empty and – your mind swimming with blank verse – you will be well under the influence, if not under the table.  You will also have insured yourself against any disappointments of the production which in this case, I’m afraid, were many.

Henry IV is perhaps Shakespeare’s masterpiece, but in more ways than one it is a game of two halves.  The action alternates between high politics, as King Henry faces down rebels who are curiously convinced a) that old King Richard is not actually dead and b) that Henry had him murdered, and the low farce of his wild son Henry’s adolescence.  As for the future Henry V, he divides his time between his duties on the battlefield and his dissipated life amongst the taverns and bawdyhouses of London.  As he struggles to grow into the man he will become his loyalties are split between his stern royal father and his dissolute father-figure, Falstaff: the greatest character in the story and perhaps in all English Theatre.  Here is a role the finest actors would kill to play, but in which all too often they die on their feet.  From Orson Wells to Simon Russell Beale, the greatest talents have come up against the near impossible task of capturing the humour, charisma and bombast as well as the vulnerability and pathos necessary for the role.  And for many years to come all Falstaffs will struggle to emerge from under the Gargantuan shadow of Roger Allam and his recent Olivier-winning performance at the Globe. 

So it is no great insult to Anthony Sher to say that he entirely fails to convince us that he could seduce an heir to the throne – even one as lacklustre as Alex Hassell – into a life of lechery, drunkenness and debauchery.  But the problems with this production go deeper: if the light scenes fail to be funny, the serious ones are often comically bathetic, even to sober members of the audience.  Northumberland greets news of his son’s death in battle as one might the words ‘time, gentlemen, please’.  And Jasper Britton’s re-animation in the key death scene is more 28 Days Later than Jerusalem Chamber.  

True, things improved somewhat in the second half (or was it just that by now we were steaming?).  The magnificently-jowled Oliver Ford Davies, who seems to have been playing all the small parts in Shakespeare histories since the days of Burbage, shows his versatility with a definitive performance as the mandrake-penised Justice Shallow.  There was some fun to be had in the scenes where he and Falstaff recruit hapless yokels for cannon-fodder.  But in general the whole evening has the plodding slowness of a provincial performance.  Which, up from Stratford, is what it really is.  It remains mysterious that the RSC is taken so seriously whilst the Globe is viewed as little more than a tourist destination, when the latter so regularly hits the spot with energetic Shakespeares played, as they were surely written, for a mixed audience of half-cut groundlings who have just staggered in from the pub.  Here both audience and actors could have done with a couple of skin-fulls of sack to get things going.  After all Falstaff is the embodiment of the drunken and anarchic spirit of England.  This is not a play for be-suited Volvic drinkers, joyless and pompous, like those who tutted at us throughout the performance.  For ourselves we reeled out, hiccupping and happy.  At least Falstaff and his creator would be smiling on us.  Even if the rest of the audience were not.

 by Alasdair Donaldson

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