Henry IV Pt. 1
When Nick Hytner took over as Artistic Director at the National Theatre, his first directing production was a much-loved Henry V in modern dress.
Now, he skips back a generation with Henry IV, this time in more traditional costumes. Inevitably with this director, there are lovely, witty touches, especially through subtle use of body language.
Mark Thompson's design features a large ramp that widens downstage with colour added by three narrow video screens. The lights come up to show the desolation as David Bradley's low-key Henry Bolingbroke begins his reign, following the death of Richard II.
The King struggles with two young men, his son Hal and their erstwhile ally, the headstrong, noble Harry Percy or Hotspur from the North. The latter is played by David Harewood who will not bow down and is on an inevitable crash course after an argument over Scottish prisoners.
Hal, the man who would be Henry V, is relentlessly dissolute. Matthew MacFadyen plays this young joker as a modern-day layabout, constantly carousing with his bosom pal, the outrageous old drunk Sir John Falstaff.
Sir Michael Gambon has gone overboard with both the padding and hair. This wild, roly-poly old man, dressed in gorgeous burgundy velvet trousers and matching hat, raises laughs every time he ascends a staircase. He looks amazing with overflowing hair and beard, almost like Father Christmas.
Falstaff is never sober but his increasingly ridiculous boasts are hilarious and Sir Michael delivers some wonderful speeches outlining the philosophy of cowardice. He also does a lovely mime demonstrating his supremacy over an armed gang of a dozen or more.
Hal has his fun, much to the distress of his father, but having been summoned to save the nation, sobers up fast and issues a brave challenge to Hotspur for single combat that would save the lives of many soldiers.
The battle scenes are fairly brief but loud and spectacular and the final fight between the two young men is as thrilling and well choreographed, by the ubiquitous Terry King, as one could hope to see without actors losing limbs.
MacFadyen, "The nimble-footed, madcap Prince of Wales", only really comes into his own as Hal throws off his youthful indiscretions and becomes a fighter. It is then that we can see the seeds of the King who will rouse his troops to a heroic victory at Agincourt.
This first part of Henry IV is at its best when Sir Michael's Falstaff is in his pomp and when Harewood shows the difference between a sincere young man who believes in his cause, possibly wrongly, and someone who has inherited a crown and knows it. He is also convincing in the scenes where Hotspur is seen at home reassuring his affectionate but insecure wife (Naomi Frederick).
It advances the tale of an England ripped asunder and whets the appetite nicely for the more comic second helping, and indeed Henry V.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher