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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

The two best plays in Shakespeare’s epic cycle of English history from “King Richard II” to “King Henry VIII” are the first and second parts of King Henry IV, seen in an exciting production directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre.  Action and character are paramount, as Mr. Hytner presents them on an uncluttered stage, backed by a panoramic film denoting changes of scene.  Part 1 opens with a solemn procession down a center ramp, as King Henry (David Bradley) speaks the opening lines, describing both himself and the state of England after a civil war: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care/Find we a time for frighted Peace to pant….” As women keen over corpses on the battlefield on either side, Henry’s hopes for peace are shattered by news of another “broil.”

The conflict between the forces of King Henry and the nobles led in revolt by Northumberland, who earlier assisted him in deposing Richard II, is a parallel to the family conflict, between the king and his son Hal.  The king wishes that Hal were more like Northumberland’s son Hotspur, already a brave warrior, presaging the conflict between the two men at the Battle of Shrewsbury, when they fight it out to the death.

To relieve the solemnity of the historical scenes, Shakespeare borrowed a device from an earlier, anonymous play (a source for these two plays as well as for “Henry V”) called “The Famous Victories of Henry V,” in which the serious scenes, loosely based on historical accounts, were interspersed with comic scenes of low life.  Shakespeare improves greatly on his source by creating Sir John Falstaff as the leader of the questionable types who frequent the tavern in Eastcheap, a favorite haunt of the king’s son Hal, the Prince of Wales (Matthew Macfadyen).

 Michael Gambon, the star of the ensemble, is the best Falstaff in decades. As interpreted by Mr. Gambon, the unkempt fat knight is clever, wily, gluttonous, and self-serving, while at the same time extremely witty and inventive, the latter qualities suggesting what draws Hal to him, away from the dull councils at court.  Compared to Hal’s father King Henry, a severe disciplinarian, Falstaff is fun.  But as Hal tells us early in the play, he knows that his fun time is limited, and that he will give up the tavern life, shrewdly realizing that this “born again” transformation will gain him popular approval. We believe him, but Falstaff does not.

One of the most poignant scenes in Part 1 occurs at the end of the comic tavern scene in which surrogate father Falstaff takes on the role of King Henry, rehearsing Hal for an  uncomfortable audience with the king, and praising his son’s “virtuous,” “portly” companion. When it is his turn to play the king, the prince denigrates that same companion.  Then Gambon’s Falstaff, after defending himself, turns serious and pleads, “banish not him thy Harry’s company.”  Hal’s reply, “I do, I will,” seems to go unheard. This is great theater.

Besides the contrast between father figures Falstaff and King Henry, who, by the Battle of Shrewsbury is convinced Hal loves him and is not eager for his demise, there is the contrast between Hal and Hotspur, played by David Harewood as more of a comic than a dangerous figure. The loyal followers of King Henry are contrasted to the rebel lords, especially in the scene where Glendower (Robert Blythe), Hotspur, and Mortimer (Alistair Petrie) carve up the map of England for themselves, which would shock the patriotic Elizabethan audience.

 As if the battle encounters were not enough by way of exciting theater, there is Falstaff’s behavior, both comic and serious, on the fighting field. His two soliloquies add another facet to his character, his reflection on honor, tellingly delivered by Mr. Gambon, and his cynical disclosure that the “ragamuffins” he recruited have been “peppered.” When earlier, the prince pities them, Falstaff rationalizes that they were “food for powder” anyway. He took the men out of prison when the original conscripts bought their way out of service, profiting Falstaff “three hundred and odd pounds.”  Part 1 ends as it began, with women mourning the slain bodies, and news of fresh outbreaks.

In Part 2, to lighten the historical scenes, Shakespeare takes Falstaff through Gloucestershire where he is recruiting men for the next battle. His meeting with and envy of well-off Justice Shallow, delightfully played by John Wood, is the comic highlight of Part 2, as Shallow recalls his nonexistent wild youth.  Adrian Scarborough is Silence, also richly comic when imbibing prompts song.  A memorable quiet scene is the father-son dialogue as David Bradley impressively portrays the worries of King Henry’s “uneasy head,” and Hal  (again) convinces his father that he is a worthy successor.

Throughout Part 2, Shakespeare does not portray Falstaff as attractive as in Part 1, where he displays the wit Hal enjoys.  Now he seems, as brilliantly interpreted by Mr. Gambon, tired and melancholy as well as old and even bitter.  And here we witness the recruiting scene, where Falstaff cynically rejects the robust men (and pockets their bribes) in favor of thin Shadow, ragged Wart, and ladies’ tailor Feeble.

As for Hal, having convinced the king of both his worthiness and bravery, he must after the death of his father, reject Falstaff.   He does so in public, at the coronation procession.  As the new king Henry V proceeds down the center ramp, with his old friends waving madly at him, Falstaff right in his path, Hal reproaches him: “I know thee not old man.”  Deflated,  Falstaff tells his companions, “I shall be sent for soon at night,” but even he does not believe it.

The ensemble acting of the large cast, and their clarity of delivery, together with  outstanding performances by David Bradley as the king and Michael Gambon as Falstaff make this a memorable production worthy of the subject and of Shakespeare.