John Wood and Roger Forbes, adapted from the novel by Robert Nye
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, and touring
I still remember the delight with which, over thirty years ago, I read Robert Nye's first person 'memoirs' of Sir John Falstaff. Now this prize-winning book has provided the material for this two-hour (plus interval) production from Canada's National Arts Centre,
Two hours is a long time to sustain what is in effect a monologue but Roger Forbes rises to the challenge. Eschewing heavy padding or make-up he gives us a jovial rogue who seems much more relaxed and likeable in old age. Shakespeare killed him off (and off stage too) in Henry V and then revived him, perhaps to please Queen Elizabeth, for The Merry Wives of Windsor; but our national poet was no great stickler for historical accuracy so Nye felt free to keep him living to fight at Agincourt and well into the reign of Henry VI. We find him in the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap - he's bought it as his home when visiting London from the country, and there he reminiscences with us over his long and eventful life.
At first, I felt, Forbes slightly over-pitches his performance but soon gets into his stride, despite director John Wood making him frequently rearrange furniture or props with no motivation. I realise that by putting a stool atop a table and then mounting it he was echoing a traditional way of staging a tavern scene in Henry IV (Part 1), an episode he refers to in his story, but most of it is unnecessary and interferes with Forbes at his best, engaging directly with the audience. Perhaps in a larger proscenium theatre it helped animate the action. In a small studio venue it just seems busy and to no purpose.
A couple of tapestries, rugs and oak furniture suggest the mid fifteenth century and Falstaff is traditionally dressed (designer Eo Sharp). If you know the plays in which he appears there will be extra resonances in the story and you'll recognize a line or two from them, but you don't have to know your Shakespeare to follow this entertainment, though you had best not be too prudish: there is a lot of talk of pricks and farts.
It is amusing, but not uproariously funny. This Falstaff is at his best when being most serious and then he is very moving, whether talking about the Battle of Agincourt, of his own dismissal by the king, of his sighting of Joan of Arc or of his own soldiers at her burning.
You can't pack everything in Nye's book into two hours and it says much for Forbes' Falstaff that I would have been happy for it to have gone on longer and given us more.
At the Warehouse Theatre until 13th July, then touring to Norden Farm Centre, Maidenhead 16th July, Georgian Theatre, Richmond 18th July, South Holland Centre, Spalding 22nd July, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 27th July, Oxford Playhouse 5th-8th August, South Hill Park, Bracknell 9th August.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton