Player Kings

Adapted by Robert Icke, based on William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions and No Guarantees
Noël Coward Theatre

Listing details and ticket info...

Ian McKellen as Falstaff and Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Harry Credit: Manuel Harlan
Edward Coyle (centre) as King Henry IV Credit: Manuel Harlan
Samuel Edward-Cook as Hotspur, James Garnon as Worcester and Nigel Lister as Northumberland Credit: Manuel Harlan
Clare Perkins as Mistress Quickly and Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Harry Credit: Manuel Harlan
Ian McKellen as Falstaff and cast Credit: Manuel Harlan
Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Harry and Edward Coyle as King Henry IV Credit: Manuel Harlan

An 84-year-old Ian McKellen as Shakespeare's fat knight may be the main selling point for this conflation of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, but it is set in an adroit adaptation that makes it part of a clear presentation of political and dynastic history.

King Henry, having forced the abdication of Richard II, starts a troubled reign, former supporters rebelling against him, while heir apparent Prince of Wales Harry is leading a wild life with a batch of bully-boy criminals.

It is in modern dress with telephones and a helicopter, the royal family mixed-race. Hildegard Bechtler’s set has walls of battered brickwork and swishing curtains. Overhead titles identify location and provide added information including the background before Henry’s coronation and the numbers on each side and the huge number killed in a major battle. An ethereal countertenor (Henry Jenkinson) sings patriotic anthems "Jerusalem" and "I Vow to Thee My Country" in sardonic contrast to the struggle for power and position that is actually going on.

Richard Coyle is austere as Henry, conscience troubled and ailing, suddenly finding reserves of energy when confronting his wayward son. Toheeb Jimoh’s Prince Harry, first seen in fire-lit shadows, bare-arsed and taking drugs as a crime is planned, may be living hedonistically and irresponsibly away from the rigours of court life, but that doesn’t stop him from pulling rank. He isn’t a drop-out, but using these people for his own amusement, including Ian McKellen’s Falstaff.

McKellen as a fat man? That’s not the way one imagines him, but he wears Falstaff’s weight as though it really is part of him, matched with the detail of gesture that often goes with it. The jovial buffoon is a front for an opportunist cynic. Like his willd exaggerations, his optimism is of his own invention; it takes in other people but can’t convince himself. This penniless knight who doesn’t stop at stealing from the dead purveys an underlying sadness, but deliciously exploits his chances when treated as a hero in some added scenes after the interval.

The King compares his Harry to rebel Harry Hotspur (Samuel Edward-Cook full of fiery vehemence), and then the Prince accepts his role and responsibilities and seems set to earn his birthright, but when the two meet in battle, Icke adds a new twist that underlines the realities that are foregrounded in his production.

Falstaff and the situations he gets into are often funny. There are lots of laughs and McKellen has great comic timing, but they are a leavening to a starker story and a long one, getting on for four hours. But it is well worth the effort. I was held throughout despite the heads in front that blocked so much of the action.

After its West End run Player Kings will tour to Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle upon Tyne

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?