Review: Henry IV Part 1

Strangely, Henry IV Part 1 may be the Shakespeare play I’ve seen the most. Even if it’s not quite the top in viewings, I think it’s unquestionably the play I know best, and one that I’ve spent a truly ridiculous amount of time thinking about. So it’s very exciting to me when a production can offer ideas about it that I’ve never seen or thought of before. While far from a perfect production, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Part 1 offers a lot to think about, including particularly compelling takes on Prince Hal and Hotspur. 

It opens, however, with a direct call-back to last year’s Richard II starring David Tennant. Up on a platform, a figure (face shadowed) dressed in Richard’s long white robes and long brown hair looks down on the man who deposed him, King Henry IV, abject and repentant in a church. The design matches last year, too: medieval costumes, a wood set with galleries that echoes the architecture of the RSC’s stage, a healthy dose of Christian imagery. King Henry’s frequently religious language is leaned into heavily: the only two places he is ever seen are in a church or on a battlefield. He crosses himself a lot. And most importantly, he seems to take fairly literally his own conjecture that his wayward son, Prince Hal, has been sent by God “to punish [his] mistreadings.” His frustration and impatience, even in the face of Hal’s attempts to reform, create an interesting father-son relationship that is the inverse of the usual: Alex Hassell’s oddly earnest Hal just wants to impress daddy, but his father will not be convinced. 

This sometimes forces Jasper Britton to play against the sense of his lines as King Henry, but it also sets up Hal and Hotspur (a manic Trevor White) less as polar opposites than as kindred spirits forced onto opposing paths. Hotspur, too, looks often for approval to his father and uncle, who are both just as likely to respond with a blow as with paternal advice. Hotspur in turn vents his hurt and frustrations on his wife, the absent (but, you get the sense, ever-present at the back of his mind) Hal, or anyone else he can reach. I was aware more than ever of the hollowness of the rebellion, and of Hotspur’s twin betrayals by the very family members who have put him up to leading it. 

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be much method to Hal’s madness. He’s certainly no Machiavelli (unless Machiavelli was a frat-boy douchebag, in which case… yeah, maybe), and his drunken revels with Falstaff and the others are clearly a means of distracting himself from his own feelings of failure; his explanation to the audience (for which the house lights, interestingly but somewhat awkwardly, were fully raised for the only time in the show) rings mostly as a desperate rationalization. He seems to realize only as he jokingly says it that someday, he will have to leave Falstaff and the rest behind. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is very much in the vein of Simon Russell Beale’s TV portrayal of the character, leaning more into his advanced age than his irrepressible life force. 

The sense of both Hal and Hotspur as basically good-hearted but badly misguided and mistreated made me dread their inevitable clash as I never have before. Usually, they seem like emissaries from different worlds, their perspectives on honor and politics completely incompatible, the victory of one over the other somehow necessary to the coherent functioning of the kingdom. Here, however, one almost wishes they could just get along, and work together to overthrow their guilt-ridden and self-centered parents. But at least if they have to fight, the choreography of their final encounter (fights by Terry King) is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, involving at one point a total of four (!) swords. Though it wasn’t as meticulously narrative as the duel sometimes can be, this was more than balanced by the sheer thrill of it, especially at a chance to finally see Hotspur doing what he does best, and reveling in it. 

The marketing for this production leans primarily on Falstaff and King Henry. The former makes sense, it being not only Falstaff, but Antony Sher; but the choice of Henry over Hal or even Hotspur is interesting. It matches the title, of course, and allows more direct continuity with Richard II. And, as the first scene makes explicit, the RSC is interested in presenting their history plays as a direct series of sequels. But try as one might, Henry IV Part 1 just isn’t about King Henry. He has only three scenes in the first three acts, and he’s present in act two only in the form of Hal and Falstaff’s burlesqued versions of him. Admittedly, he has more to do in Part 2, but at least for this half, the production did not manage to justify its marketing choice. 

Another gesture towards continuity is the interesting inclusion of a scene from The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous play from which Shakespeare seems to have borrowed liberally when structuring his own plays about the youth of the future Henry V. I was very skeptical when I heard about this, as Famous Victories is more or less terrible. But the scene, an encounter between Hal and the Lord Chief Justice who becomes a major player in Part 2, actually works very nicely in setting up the identity of the Chief Justice rather than having him suddenly appear as he does in Shakespeare’s text, and by letting us see the tense relationship between him and Hal that is otherwise only talked about. 

In some ways, King Henry’s arrogant fears about his son in this production aren’t entirely wrong: Hal is a rebuke, not sent by God, but borne of Henry’s own self-centered paranoia and guilt. That is the staggering challenge these plays offer to the doctrine of divine right. King Henry can never be truly legitimate because he overthrew an anointed monarch– but somehow, the son of a usurper can grow up to be one of England’s greatest kings. One feels that the only thing standing between that future and this Prince Hal is not Falstaff’s temptations, but his father’s example.

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