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Player Kings

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • Noël Coward Theatre, Covent Garden
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Player Kings, Noël Coward Theatre, 2024
Photo: Manuel HarlanIan McKellen (Falstaff) and Toheeb Jimoh (Hal)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ian McKellen and Toheeb Jimoh are phenomenal as a deluded Falstaff and dangerous Hal in Robert Icke’s elegant take on ‘Henry IV’

Yes, the presence of soon-to-turn-85 stage and screen legend Ian McKellen tackling Shakespeare’s great character Sir John Falstaff is the big draw in ‘Player Kings’. 

But Robert Icke’s three hour-40-minute modern-dress take on the two ‘Henry IV’ plays does not pander to its star, and is unwavering in its view that this is the story of two deeply damaged men, linked grimly together. 

McKellen is naturally excellent as an atypically elderly Falstaff, whose continual self aggrandisement is such that even his line about being in his fifties comes across as an improbable boast. But his younger co-star Toheeb Jimoh is equally as good as a bitter, angry Prince Hal, who feels startlingly a piece with the vengeful older version of himself we meet in ‘Henry V’.

The usual take is that with his dad recently installed on the English throne, heir Hal is enjoying a classic bout of youthful hedonism. He’s carousing away in Cheapside tavern the Boar’s Head,  living it up with various lowlife eccentrics, foremost among them the rotund rogue Falstaff, who serves as something of a substitute father to Richard Coyle’s cold, formal Henry IV.

But in Icke’s version, the tension between the two leads is palpable. Jimoh’s Hal responds coldly to the older man’s attempts at mockery, and there is a palpable sense of danger to him. Hanging out at the Boar, he feels less a pampered princeling out of his depth, more an escaped tiger lying low at a petting zoo.

Their relationship never feels truly easy: indeed, the scene in which Hal and Falstaff roleplay the King talking to Hal is deeply uncomfortable, Hal’s rage with both of his fathers burning incandescently through Jimoh. Much of their dialogue is Hal mocking Falstaff, and while that’s usually played as affectionate banter, here it feels darker – he’s the father Hal can belittle, as opposed to Coyle’s Henry, the father he can never please.

Falstaff and Hal do share a couple of genuinely tender moments, and they feel all the more touching for their scarcity. But we’re never allowed to forget how screwed up Hal in particular is. In a masterstroke, Icke mines a dark new twist out of his showdown with Samuel Edward-Cooke’s fearsome but honourable rebel Hotspur that throws a completely different light on Hal. I won’t spoil a fairly radical departure from tradition but reader, I gasped.

Then there’s McKellen. The man was born before the Second World War and he can remember his lines for three-and-a-half hours. That would probably do a lot of punters here to see a famous person on stage. But he is, of course, excellent as a Falstaff whose essential failure in life obviously weighs heavily on him. It’s a funny role, and McKellen gets some big laughs - Falstaff’s apparent resurrection after the battle of Shrewsbury brings the house down. His oddly proportioned fat suit is quite amusing. But in his constant self aggrandisement, he displays next to no actual humour - his boasts are the person who he wishes he was. 

Icke gives him a bit more of a journey than Shakespeare strictly allows: there’s a funny bit at the start of part two where he’s filming a naff TV advert for his own brand of sack, the Elizabethan fortified wine he’s forever quaffing. The suggestion is he’s parlayed his association with Hal into a move up the social ladder. Nonetheless, when news of the old king’s death reaches Falstaff, the expression on McKellen’s face is simply next-level stuff: an instant flash of terror that betrays the fact he understands that Hal will abandon him, which slowly mellows into good cheer as he rallies his formidable powers of self-deception.

Though no other actors have such meaty roles, ‘Player Kings’ has a supporting cast to die for: Edward-Cooke is excellent as a somewhat unknowable Hotspur, an edgy mix of thug and gentleman. Clare Perkins is a fine Mistress Quickly, tough as old boots but decent inside. Coyle does an excellent job of parsing a medieval monarch into a modern politician.

‘Player Kings’ is more stripped back than Icke’s previous work, and there’s part of me that misses the fizz and flash of his earlier days. But a lack of gimmickry undoubtedly helps the psychological intensity. And if Hildegard Bechtler’s sets aren’t ostentatious, they are effective: swooping curtains slickly delineate scene changes, efficient modern English surtitles keep you up to speed with the historical details. The battle of Shrewsbury is handled very nicely – less actual fighting, more a series of very startling explosions.

Aside from the wearying decision to make the character of Doll a naff, tracksuited Eastern European stereotype – something I truly thought Icke was better than – I’d say it’s a pretty much faultless turn from the director, a reminder of his uncanny ability to get to the psychological heart of a classic text. 

However, as a piece of entertainment it does somewhat run aground on the fact that ‘Henry IV Part 2’  isn’t actually that good. ‘Player Kings’ hits the usual problem with trying to pair these plays: after the explosive Part 1, Part 2 struggles to regain momentum until the phenomenal last couple of scenes. It’s still very watchable, and features some of McKellen’s best work. But has Icke solved the problem of the hitherto tight, high-stakes story going off for a meander? Well, he’s lopped an hour off, but it still drifts before rallying for the finale.

Don’t see ‘Player Kings’ out of a sense of sentimentality or worry it will be McKellen’s last stage role. Because it probably won’t. See it because it’s a terrific take on one of the greatest plays ever written (plus its decent straight-to-DVD sequel) blessed by two tremendous - and tremendously original - lead performances. All hail the kings.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin's Lane
View Website
Tube: Leicester Square
£13-£170. Runs 3hr 40min

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