Henry IV (an appropriately weary Jasper Britton), who had planned to alleviate his guilt over the death of Richard II with a voyage to Jerusalem (“I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand”), soon finds his kingdom internally divided: unrest in Scotland and Wales, rebellion from his former ally Hotspur (Sean Chapman), and the carousing of his son, Hal (Alex Hassell), with the thieves and prostitutes of Eastcheap.
It is inevitable, of course, that Henry IV, Part 1 will be dominated by Sir John Falstaff (Anthony Sher), that inveterate liar and drunk who serves as alternate father figure to Prince Hal. Mr. Sher hardly disappoints. Though Falstaff is often played nimbly despite his obesity, here his physical degradation is marked. Mr. Sher’s voice is frequently gargled as if he has yet not rid his mouth of last night’s excesses, and he hobbles across the stage, often requiring help to stand up. After faking his death to avoid battle, he rocks his body back and forth until he is able to heave his “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” from the ground.
Because Sir John is both literally and figuratively larger than those with whom he shares the stage, we often forget that Henry IV is centrally about the transition towards a unified England. However, this production does a fine job of balancing the play’s concerns, a task I used to assume was impossible. A large crucifix hovers above the stage, reminding us that Hal, like Christ, finds better company among rogues than nobleman. Mr. Hassell is suitably charming, and his calculation that he “will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor” of the barroom’s idleness before throwing off “this loose behavior” never seems without its sincere affection for the older clown. During the play-within-a-play, in which Falstaff plays Hal and Hal his father, there is a moment of foreboding silence after Sir John’s theatrical, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” and Hal’s reply, “I do; I will.”
When all the revels are ended, when Hotspur lies dead on the battlefield and Prince Hal had adopted more than a little of his rival’s character, the stage is set for that “redeeming time” foreseen by the prince. I am fully confident the RSC will do it justice.