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Henry IV, Part I

William Shakespeare
Barbican
(2001)

The season of Shakespeare History plays that started with Richard II in the Barbican Pit continues with the two Henry IV plays in the main Barbican Theatre. It is a significant contrast since the Pit is small and intimate with actors weaving their way between members of the audience while the main theatre is large. As a result, the experience is very different. Director Michael Attenbrough works well on this large stage and, with particular help from the excellent Desmond Barrit as Falstaff, he succeeds in drawing his audience into the action and the comedy.

The play is greatly enhanced by both Es Devlin’s marvellous set that initially appears as bare as that used for Richard II but eventually opens out onto a magnificent banked forest, and also by Paddy Cuneen’s incidental music that so often captures the mood of the play.

The first part starts where Richard II had left off with Henry IV, who believes himself to be divinely appointed, worried about Yorkist plots.

The first sign that this production is to be humorous is the entrance into the play of Falstaff and young Prince Hal. Falstaff jovially appears from the womb of Mother Earth like a mole while Hal is hatched from underneath the King’s throne.

These two make a great comedy act as they carouse around Eastcheap, the young buck and the old cowardly lion. This thread of humour is balanced with another of treason as the Yorkists led by young Harry Hotspur, Adam Levy, build up their army and their claims on the crown. Levy shows much of the enthusiasm of the young but is somehow too bouncy to be fully believable. He constantly throws his arms around in a fashion reminiscent of an operatic tenor which can be a little tiresome.

There is much humour to leaven the drama particularly a scene involving Falstaff as a footpad who is ultimately double-crossed. He is the archetypal larger-than-life character and Barrit carries off this weighty role particularly well.

Attenbrough and Devlin also show much ingenuity in portraying the court of the King (David Troughton) which appears to be floored with flaming coals. This could either be a reference to the devilish way in which he obtained his throne or the uncertainty of his life.

The second half of this play builds to the battle of Shrewsbury in which young Prince Hal ends up fighting a centrepiece dual with Harry Hotspur and ultimately wins through. Even then, amidst all the disorientation and confusion of war, the wonderful, cowardly Sir John Falstaff is able to advance his name as a hero of war. To be more accurate, he is the anti-hero of war and as he puts it himself, “the better part of valour is discretion”.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher