With a magnificent shock of bouncy grey hair, Antony Sher slowly waddles his substantially padded frame around the RSC’s productions of ‘Henry IV’ parts one and two. He’s a formidable Sir John Falstaff: his pronunciation posh and slightly slurred, his manner bawdy but full of humour, his bright red face always laughing.
It’s an excellent rendition of Shakespeare’s most fun character. Sher is like a wily, loveable, sozzled old judge. But he also takes care to bring Falstaff’s remarkably quick wit – rather than his boozing skills – to the fore. He’s key to the success of Gregory Doran’s fast-paced productions, which are nicely contained by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s brilliantly versatile set designs that double as low taverns and lofty cathedrals.
In part one’s main thread, Falstaff, Prince Hal’s sparring partner in London’s watering holes, maintains a strong presence, but the balance of focus is Alex Hassell’s prince, played as a confident, charming and fun-loving boy – not a million miles from our own prince Harry – and the journey he makes from drunk brat to the King’s eloquent right-hand man is believable. There are other excellent performances: Jasper Britton’s Henry IV is a God-fearing, watery-eyed king, wracked with guilt for killing his predecessor. Trevor White is an excellent Hotspur, fiery-eyed and wonderfully coltish.
Part two is weaker and begins with the only bit in the entire two plays performed in modern costume. It tries to parallel the spread of rumour in the piece with our own social media-obsessed lives. It’s jarring, and the costumes quickly switch back to the otherwise fairly straight medieval garb. But the scenes in rural Gloucestershire are hilarious, mainly due to the superb comic timing of Oliver Ford Davies’s Justice Shallow and Jim Hooper’s Justice Silence. They are two wonderfully weird old men.
Britton is very good as Henry IV in his death throes, but part two’s climax, where the newly crowned Henry V turns his back on his old drinking partner, is oddly muted. We can see the disappointment on Falstaff’s face, but the balanced harshness of the king’s words don’t scar the heart as they should.
Still, the two plays together are illuminating – a full, engrossing, entertaining narrative, an epic journey of friendship, betrayal, coming-of-age and kingship.