Philobiblon: Falstaff steals the show

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Falstaff steals the show

First: the loudest curtain call for the management. On a Monday in August in the National Theatre's biggest auditorium, there wasn't a spare seat in the house last night for Henry IV Part 1. For this is part of the Travelex £10 season, the second proving as successful as the first. It attracted an audience much younger and more casually dressed than you'd usually expect to see in London, particularly for Shakespeare.

One can only hope they'll start going to other shows. What few seem to realise is that, certainly around this time of the year, you can get perfectly good seats (perhaps excluding musicals) for £10 or not much more. The silly thing is that theatres don't publicise this fact. (Just turn up at the theatre box-office and ask for the cheapest ticket.)

The National is promoting the show with the words of Falstaff: "There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat, and grows old." The old knight is of course referring to himself, and in the case of this production is speaking all too truly.

Henry IV Part 1is unusual among Shakespeare's histories in that the comic scenes, rather than being light relief, are central to the plot, and occupy at least half of its length. And Michael Gambon is so powerful, so funny, so characterful, that he completely overshadows the king for whose son he is competing. David Bradley as Henry IV is just not believable as the usurping warrior. He simply lacks the presence, the charisma - characteristics that must survive in such a king even as he ages.

The same imbalance is evident in the play's other axis: Hal/Hotspur. Matthew Macfadyen as Prince Hal is a brilliant comic foil before the interval as the irritating aristocratic sprog with more dash than determination, more brains than sense, but his transition to the upstanding, chivalrous warrior just doesn't happen - it feels as though the first Hal is just acting the part. And while the sword-play in the climactic scene is fancy enough, it is impossible to imagine this fop overcoming the sheer animal testosterone of David Harewood's Hotspur - the noble played as football hooligan, which works remarkably well.

My other complaint is the set and staging - minor issues you might think - but the wide open space is too often invaded by an army of scene-shifters well before the final words of each scene, meaning whole lines are lost in the distraction and noise. And the stage is dotted with World War One-invoking blasted trees, which works well in the initial and final scenes but is otherwise distracting.

Yet I don't want to sound too critical. I, and I think the vast majority of the audience, enjoyed the virtuoso performance of Gambon, with its accompanying (big) belly laughs, and the female members at least, the display of male animal magnetism. It is a lot more than you'll get from the latest Hollywood blockbuster (a ticket for which will cost you about the same).

For another view: The Stage's review.

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