Review: Henry IV Part 1 @ Barbican *****

Forming the second part of the Barbican and RSC’s King and Country Cycle, Gregory Doran’s Henry IV Part 1 was probably my favourite of the four productions I saw. Quite a few reviews I’ve read of this production are in agreement, giving it 4*s or 5*s because of Antony Sher’s Falstaff.

I take a slightly different stance.

I give it 5* in spite of Sher’s Falstaff.

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Jasper Britton as King Henry IV, and Antony Byrne as Earl of Worcester. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

Continuing from where we left off the previous night with Richard II, we see Britton’s newly crowned Henry, a king facing public dissension and tormented by Gaunt’s warning still fresh in his and our memory from the night before. It’s not just public issues but private ones too which plague this new king: Hal. The scenes between these two were a highlight of the production, particularly Britton’s delivery of this speech: ‘not an eye/But is a-weary of thy common sight,/Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more’. Britton must be commended for his embodiment and physicality in this role. Already we see how heavy that crown is, with Britton’s practically throwing it off at every chance he gets in obvious discomfort.

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Alex Hassell as Hal. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

The cause of Henry’s trouble is Hal, played by Alex Hassell. While he does a convincing job, he truly comes into his own in the later parts. And Jamie Parker will always be my Henry V. His scenes with Poins are well played with a believable friendship and comradery conveyed, though Hassell downplayed the ‘I know you all’ speech. He didn’t quite seem to know who to direct it to. Finally, there are a handful of moments which get audible gasps throughout: Hal punching the Lord Justice is one and even I gasped!

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Sean Chapman as Northumberland, and Matthew Needham as Hotspur. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

Other notable mentions must go to Sam Marks’ playful Poins Matthew Needham’s Hotspur, who owns the stage in whatever scene he’s in. His moral ambiguity surprised me and I rooted more for him than any other production. That could be because we’ve seen first hand what he has been promised and his treatment by Henry IV. Finally, Joshua Richard’s Glendower provides one of my favourite moments I’ve seen in years: Hotspur storms onstage and proclaims ‘I have forgot map’. I genuinely thought he had to be fair. But then Glendower says ‘No, here it is!’ Does he take it out of his pocker? No. With a flourish, he whips off his cloak. Which is the map. Kind of like this:

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No actually, not ‘kind of like that’. Exactly like that! It’s hilarious and unexpectedly comedic, fortunate for me given that the expected comedic Falstaff moments failed to make me laugh.

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Antony Sher as Falstaff, and Alex Hassell as Hal. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

It just felt like Sher was going through the motions with this role: he’s done it before and every line had the exact same cadence and pronunciation. Literally. The show over ran by 20 minutes the night we saw it. And I’m pretty sure it was because of Sher’s deliberately slow delivery. Here more than anywhere else in Shakespeare, I felt the lines got laughs because they were funny. Not because of what he did with them. Because he did nothing. Was Sher a convincing Falstaff? Yes. Did he make people laugh? Yes. Did he make me change how I view Falstaff, so nuanced was his portrayal? Yes. But not in a good way. For the first time, Sher’s portrayal made me look at Falstaff in a different light: I hated Falstaff in this one. The relationship between him and Hal is wholly unbelievable; I cant find one reason why they would be friends, so uncharismatic and unlikable is this Falstaff. I could not wait for him to die. For real. Because his ‘death’ in this one dragged.

Oh and finally, finally, the bow. Excuse me. What the hell was that? Antony Sher comes out and gets top bow. By himself. In a play called Henry IV Part 1. And Britton did a far better job than Sher. It should have been Hal/Hotspur together then Henry IV/Falstaff sharing. Son/son, father/father figure. Yes it’s Sher, but that shouldn’t grant you top bow. I literally turned to my friend and whispered: ‘This is bullshit’.

Verdict: In spite of my dislike of Sher’s Falstaff, I’d still give it 5* for Britton and the amazing supporting performances.

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