I never laugh like this with Dad.
The ghost of Richard II hovers over this play—literally, since in the opening scene, which begins with a kind of coronation ceremony, the galleries are full of viewers—including one tall fellow with long hair dressed in a white robe in the gallery audience right, and is that a crown on his head? Blink and you’ll miss him, because he leaves almost immediately, but his ghostly physical presence soon becomes a concrete verbal one as Henry’s one-time allies, feeling slighted by the new king’s peremptory treatment of them, start reminding us that Richard was the rightful King, and had his own ideas about his successor, whose name did not rhyme with Rolling Croak.
The way that opening scene is acted in this production, it’s pretty clear that, to his old supporters, Jasper Britton’s Henry is the political equivalent of an actor who gives great monologue but can’t play the part—the kind of King who inspires revolt because he lacks the touch of gratitude that his son displays, the kind of man who uses his new position to justify both his superiority and his condescension. And there’s also a hint of insecurity, like all this bullying and temper is masking the granddaddy of inferiority complexes. All of which raises the question that the rest of the play is designed to make us keep asking: what makes a good king? Because that’s what we see for the next two hours: rightful kings, potential kings, would-be kings, and illicit kings, especially a crafty old overweight one.
(And by the way—during this argument, we get another great crown bit, as Henry, holding it in his hand, uses it to literally push people around until he finally plants it on his head because he’s the fucking King, by God, so treat him like one.)
As for the other would-be monarch, Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is a drawling, self-satisfied cross between Fagin and Pecksniff (a very Dickensian Falstaff, this one) who milks laughs out of the stoniest lines as he waddles around the stage like a smug well-fed goose who knows that it’s going to be someone else’s neck on the chopping block come Christmas dinner. (That walk is a brilliant touch. He literally goes from side to side in order to move forward, which is a great visual image for a character who can only progress by eternally reinforcing his current position.) Matthew Needham, who pretty much walks away with best Hotspur Ever, IS the privileged fratboy that everybody presumes Prince Hal to be, restlessly pacing when he’s not speaking, punching his wife’s shoulder when he’s being affectionate, never reining in his tongue when he can ride it at a gallop, and absolutely riveting and hilarious and heartbreaking in his divinely brainless simplicity. And Alex Hassell’s first appearance as Hal is a character reveal, as a bed with a pile of linen on it slides into view and out from under those sheets comes the future King of England, and the tavern wench he just slept with; and then the other tavern wench he just slept with. Which is a perfect place to start with this character, because it makes him look so much like a decadent wastrel that, when he gives his first soliloquy, what he’s saying is in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen him doing.
And that soliloquy is the first of many interactive moments in this series, because when we see Hal alone after his first scene with Falstaff, the lights rise to half in the audience, and suddenly we’re part of the play, and Hal is literally giving US the “I know you all” monologue where he reveals that he’s just pretending to be a scapegrace. This is also usually the moment in the play where the actor playing Hal starts to foreshadow the kingliness of the future Henry V. But not this version. Twenty minutes later, Hal goes and slaps the Lord Chief Justice, which is a moment imported from the earlier version of this script, The Famous Victories of Henry V. The moment jars, and it’s meant to. We’ve just seen Hal tell us he’s not really the juvenile delinquent he pretends to be, and here he is acting like one, which—when you think about it—retroactively makes his soliloquy not a statement of fact, but a statement of purpose.
So why undercut the soliloquy? Because there are two ways to play Hal—the serious Prince who’s slumming, which runs the risk of making him look like a manipulative prat; and the frivolous spoiled brat who is slowly learning responsibility and control, which runs the risk of making him look like a perpetual frat boy. Because this play is often done as a standalone, most actors choose the first option, so that—by the end of the play—Hal’s journey is complete. But when you do the three Hal plays in sequence, you HAVE to choose the second option, because you’re playing the long game, because you’re building a character whose journey doesn’t conclude at the end of the first play, or even the second, but the third. And that’s what Alex Hassell does throughout the sequence—he doesn’t achieve; he strives. His Hal goes back and forth between selfish and selfless, and Hassell does this wonderful thing whenever he says something Princely—he makes it look like some inner impulse he can’t control is making him speak in a kind of rush that he rides, instead of drives. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is that you get a sense of the Prince inside occasionally taking over Hal’s words and actions, little by little (and play by play) becoming more dominant, more visible, more the Windsor against which Hal of Eastcheap must measure himself.
Which is why this production is unique along all the other Henry IV 1’s I’ve seen. It’s not played as a novel, but a chapter. It asks the questions but it doesn’t give you the answers. It pits Hal’s two fathers against each other—one a likeable braggart, the other a peevish bully; one a chummy blowhard, the other a vexatious drillmaster—and it never declares a victor. It pits Hal against a Hotspur who, thanks the right direction and a great actor, is just as much a spirit of misrule as Falstaff, the main difference being that Hotspur’s self-centered view of the world will cost other people their lives, while Falstaff’s only costs other people their money, and their pride, if they’re willing to part with them.
Interesting perception note: The scene where Hal offers to fight Hotspur in single combat is not done as a regal Hal moment but as a Hotspur Hal moment, where the whole thing rushes out of Alex Hassell in what amounts to a single thought and almost a single breath. And Henry’s reaction is to brusquely and physically push Hal back into line. My friend DJ saw this and thought: “He’s protecting Hal because he doesn’t want him to lose his life in a stupid chivalric tradition that makes no sense.” I saw this and thought “He’s shoving Hal back into line because he doesn’t want to share the spotlight with anybody, even his son, and no wonder Hal hangs out with Falstaff.” Which says all you need to know about my relationship with my father, and DJ’s with hers.
And the end of the play, which I have seen done so many times as a moment of finality and completion, has a definite TO BE CONTINUED feel to it. Nothing gets settled. The battle is won, but nothing has really been decided. You’re left without the usual closure you get when you see this play. Because it is indeed to be continued.
Spoiler alert: Too bad it’s continued by Henry IV Part 2.