You gotta love the English weather: the two outdoor performances I’ve attended this week have been mostly rained on and the two small theatre pub things have been on ridiculously hot evenings turning them into saunas, you just can’t win sometimes! Fortunately, I was seated for this matinee of Henry IV Part One so I was sheltered from the occasionally heavy showers, not so the yardlings though…
It’s all huge amounts of fun: it starts with a mummers masque and ends with an exuberant jig and is full of music and singing throughout which captured the varying moods of this coming of age story perfectly. Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, is struggling to find himself both personally and politically, amid the pressures from three different groups of people: the politically astute King and his courtiers, the witty and shrewd Falstaff and assorted drinking buddies and the rebel camp headed up by the forthright and charismatic Hotspur, each challenging him a different way.
There’s a deal of the high politics in there but this production is so alive to the amount of humour in here as well, the Boar’s Head scenes are riotously good raucous fun, watched and dominated by a towering performance by Roger Allam as Sir John Falstaff. Allam negotiates the tightrope of comedy and tragedy expertly, mixing up the philosophising, the dynamic wit, the quicksilver tongue and the earthiness, the realisation he’s only ever a couple of steps away from ruin.
Jamie Parker is excellent as Prince Hal, emerging first from a trapdoor with a whore and his pants round his ankles and we never lose that sense of fun, the twinkle in his eye, even as he matures visibly in front of us, yet maintaining the brusque tinges of his father in the dismissiveness that creeps in. Sam Crane makes a poised and slightly self-aware Hotspur, charismatic and fiercely loyal but erring to the hot-headed, a very appealing stage presence and well-matched by William Gaunt’s Worcester, the best verse speaker on the stage, the words flow so naturally from him and together they work wonders. I was a little disappointed by Oliver Cotton’s King Henry though, he doesn’t seem to have quite decided what type of role he is going to play and as the resultant hesitancy ended up playing in a fairly dull way, but he has time to work on this before opening night so all is far from lost.
Jonathan Fensom’s design has taken the heraldic theme and run with it. Banners with all the heraldic badges on them adorn the balconies all around and the simple timber construction onstage allows for large drapes featuring the crest of the location to form the backdrop and be quickly changed as we move around the country: it is simple but effective. The construction also doubles as a balcony but has a rather vertiginous staircase to get up and down, I do worry for those actors! The stage just has a little extra added onto the front so yardlings aren’t affected too much; there’s also a little stage set in the middle of the yard which was only used right at the beginning by the mummers so it seemed a shame that the stewards were constantly asking people to move away from it as no other actors used it. There was a good use of the yard space though with characters hiding in the audience and clambering under the stage, a better exploitation of the Globe’s potential than say Henry VIII.
The pacing is quite good considering it is still in early previews, but some of the court scenes were a little stately and you really begin to feel it towards the end of the first half which currently runs to a bum-numbing 1 hour and 45 minutes. Otherwise this is a really rather super Henry IV Part One, deft of touch, nicely comedic, musical and fun and definitely leaving one excited for Part Two but this also makes a fine stand-alone piece. On a final note, it also features the speediest peeling of a hard-boiled egg I have ever seen, this is clearly one of the reasons I am not an actor, it normally takes me ages and even then I have to wash it to make sure there’s no tiny bits of shell still on there, Jamie Parker peeled and ate the whole thing in the blink of an eye!