Unlike last week’s Richard II, I came to Henry IV Part 1 with absolutely no prior experience of the play. That possibly helps with overcoming the problems presented by my preconceptions for its predecessor, because while I’m sure this was as changed and abridged as Richard II had been I didn’t feel nearly so aggrieved about it this week. Only in the very opening minutes – when two scenes are intercut in a very modern and jarringly non-Shakespearian way – did I feel that there was anything amiss with the production, but that quickly passed.
Perhaps that’s because the core story here is somewhat clearer-cut than last week’s more vague and ambiguous plot. That makes Henry IV more robust to editing and easier to cope with being pared down; perhaps also it has more superfluous padding to give up than did Richard II. Where Richard II had dangerous and shifting ideas about kingship and majesty, this week’s story is a straightforward retelling of the story of the prodigal son, with King Henry’s heir Prince Hal something of a reprobate slumming it with the lower class and clearly not fit to succeed to the throne; whereas the other candidate, Henry Percy a.k.a. Hotspur is manifestly more qualified to rule but is also recklessly impatient, seemingly intent on hastening King Henry’s departure from the throne by leading a rebellion on the north.
As a production, Henry IV Part 1 benefits from a richer backdrop than last week’s opening entry into the BBC’s Hollow Crown season, being set against the bawdy, dirty backstreets of Medieval London,and in the smoky, hazy depths of the Boar’s Head Tavern in London’s downmarket Eastcheap area. These are well realised and contrast beautifully with the pristine but coldly austere palaces and castles of the nobility and finally the frosty, misty battlefield on which the play reaches its climax. It’s such a richly textured and beautifully realised production that it makes last week’s perfectly acceptable outing look like a sparse am-dram performance by contrast.
Since Henry IV Part 1 is a direct continuation of Richard II and even carries some characters over, it’s a shame there is no continuity in the cast: it would have brought it home more that Henry is now facing the fruits of the rebellion he himself led against Richard and that the same people who swept him to power now seek to undo him. In particular, it’s a shame that David Morrissey wasn’t able to remain as Northumberland to bring this point to life. Instead this production uses the passing of time to justify all-new actors, with Morrissey replaced by Alun Armstrong who is joined by his real-life son Joe (the family resemblance is remarkable) playing the rash northern firebrand Hotspur. Joe Armstrong’s been around for a while – he was a regular in the BBC’s recent Robin Hood revival – but he’s never been as good in anything as he is here, a real fizzing star presence as a Mick Jagger rock star determined to upset the status quo.
In Richard II, Henry was played by Rory Kinnear; here, he has aged into Jeremy Irons. I’ve not been a huge fan of Irons in the past, to be honest, but his playing of the King here has made me a convert. Right or wrong, my measure of how good a performance someone is giving in Shakespeare is whether or not they can take overly-familiar words written four hundred year ago to be declaimed from the stage, and somehow make them feel as though they’re coming from a real person standing right in front of me, fresh and for the first time as though the person has just thought of them. Irons does it, with every single line. He brings Henry to life in an extraordinary organic and modern way to a degree I’m not sure I’ve seen done by any actor playing any Shakespearian character in any production so far.
Tom Hiddleston has the harder and more varied role of Prince Hal and came within a whisker of equalling Irons. From the moment he swaggers onto screen through the crowds of peasants, at once “one of them” and yet transparently also “a prince among men” at the same time, he pulls off every facet of Hal’s evolving personality with charm, wit and assurance. Also stand-out excellent is David Dawson in the comparatively minor role of Hal’s sidekick Poins: although I’d loved Dawson’s starring role as Tony Warren in The Road to Coronation Street I was surprised by how wonderful he is here in a wholly different part.
Unfortunately Shakespeare didn’t get around to writing any top-notch female characters for Henry IV, and trying to boost their impact here by casting Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly makes it rather too close to having Acorn Antiques’ Mrs Overall around, while Michelle Dockery’s turn as Hotspur’s wife Kate is very misplaced, feeling like she’s just taking a wrong turn here on her way to the set of Downton Abbey.
And then there’s Falstaff. Although I’d never seen a version of Henry IV Part 1 before now, I still knew about Falstaff – he’s one of Shakespeare’s best known and most beloved characters, after all. And yet on the evidence of his production, I couldn’t understand why this was the case: he was made out to be a really terrible wretch with absolutely no redeeming qualities, attacked by everyone in the play and brutally mocked by Shakespeare’s very text at every opportunity. Perhaps he’s redeemed in Part II, or perhaps this production is just too vicious a take on him for someone uninitiated in the character such as myself to find a way in, but I just couldn’t find anything about Simon Russell Beale’s turn in the role to latch onto. (It didn’t help that an awful lot of the dialogue sounded notably poorly dubbed post-production.)
But Beale along with Hiddleston are both fantastic in the pivotal Act 2, Scene 5 of the play, felt by many to be the finest single scene Shakespeare ever wrote and certainly a show-stopper here. It starts with Hal and Poins having some fun with one of the lowly staff at the Boar’s Head Tavern, then segues into Falstaff telling rapidly embroidered stories of how he’s been robbed, and then becomes a quite extraordinary scene where Falstaff and Hal role-play in preparation for a forthcoming encounter Hal must have with his father. It’s when Hal plays the King that you can see certain realisation dawning on him for the first time: an unexpected single line of dialogue – “I do, I will” – now the turning point on which the whole of the rest of the play turns, after which the scene ends with Hal coming face to face with evidence of Falstaff’s failings. It is as brilliant a dramatic journey as the hype about the scene would have you believe.
After that the climactic battle sequence perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the big finish it’s intended to; even much pared down (or perhaps because so), the scene feels confused and dislocated from what had come before it. It’s a transition moment, leading from the resolution of this play to start of the next, wherein the rapidly ailing King Henry IV takes centre stage in his own eponymous play, and Hal makes good his declared intent with regard to Falstaff.
The Hollow Crown is on BBC2 on Saturday evenings and is being series-stacked on the BBC iPlayer.