“Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men…” The Henry IV plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2014

It was in the summer of ’78, when I was still recovering from a particularly traumatic World Cup campaign, that I first visited Stratford-on-Avon. I went with a couple of friends, one of whom, I know, looks into this blog from time to time. It was, for me, a sort of pilgrimage, I suppose – sacred ground. We had tickets booked for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I wasn’t entirely happy with this, I remember: I would have preferred a better known play – Hamlet, maybe, or Richard III, or some such. I wasn’t to know that this particular production would be regarded in years to come as one of the great theatrical landmarks, and that, some thirty-six years later, I would be boasting – admittedly, to indifferent listeners – that yes, I was actually there. John Barton directed a splendid cast, featuring Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire as Berowne and Rosaline, Michael Hordern as Don Armado, and a supporting cast that included such future stars as Richard Griffith, Juliet Stevenson, and Alan Rickman. My first evening in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was an evening of sheer perfection. While we were there we saw another play that, at the time, was new to me: Measure for Measure, featuring Michael Pennington as the Duke, Paola Dionisotti as Isabella, and Jonathan Pryce as Angelo. I remember sitting in the back row of the gallery, looking down from a great height on to the stage (I was an impecunious student, after all), and wondering why, despite regarding myself as a Shakespeare nut even then, I did not know a play so utterly spellbinding as this. All in all, that first visit was a huge success. I have been back to Stratford several times since, of course: it is, after all, a mere two hour drive up the motorway from where I now live, and the internet has made it much easier to book tickets. Over the years, I have seen there performances of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra … and, on one glorious day back in ’91, both parts of Henry IV on a single day – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. There have been some changes, of course, to the place: the main theatre has been completely refurbished, with the old proscenium stage now replaced with an apron stage coming out into the auditorium. However, the centre of the town remains much as it was, with the riverside gardens stretching between the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Shakespeare memorial, the spire of the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, visible down-river. The birthplace itself, in nearby Henley Street, has been maintained to look much as it has looked for centuries, I guess. There’s New Place, where Shakespeare, retired from London, lived in his later years; and there’s still that delightful walk through parks and fields to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Neither is there, contrary to some reports I have heard, any great evidence of “tourist tack”. Of course, it caters for the many tourists who visit: it can hardly do otherwise. But I can find little that I would describe as “tacky”, or “schmaltzy”. In short, the whole place remains as delightful as when I had first visited.

I was there again a few weeks ago, and, once again, it was to see the Henry IV plays – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. Of course, comparisons with the productions of these same plays that I had seen there 23 years ago, or, rather, with the often unreliable memories of what I had seen there 23 years ago, are inevitable. Back then, Adrian Noble had directed, and Sir Robert Stephens had played Falstaff; this time, Greg Doran, currently artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, directs, and another Shakespearean knight, Sir Anthony Sher, plays Falstaff. And very different the interpretations are. But, whatever the interpretation, what a work this is! I have a pet theory that it was while writing this work that Will realised just how great a genius he was: he realised he had complete mastery of pacing and of form; he realised that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could not express. Yes, he had already written Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he had already created Shylock; but here, he cranks it up a few notches higher. In The Merchant of Venice, he had allowed the mighty figure of Shylock to overwhelm the rest of the drama, but he was not going to allow that here: no matter how great a figure Falstaff is, he is fully integrated into the drama. The Merchant of Venice without Shylock is a bore, but Henry IV, even when Falstaff is not present, is compelling. And in Part Two, Shakespeare pulls off one of his most stunning innovations: he dispenses with plot almost entirely, and keeps the whole thing more or less static. Even in Act Two, the part of the play where we would normally expect the dramatic momentum to develop, he introduces a long tavern scene peopled by drunks and half-wits who mouth mainly gibberish: there is no dramatic movement, simply because there is nowhere to move to. The whole play consists of people waiting for something to happen: and when it finally does happen – when King Henry dies, and Hal becomes Henry V – all expectations that everyone had harboured are shattered. But till then, in the rest of the play, all we see are characters filling in time as they wait. And, as they wait, they merely become older. Nay, they must be old: they cannot choose but be old. And they must face death. Antony, in a later play, declares that he will “have one more gaudy night, and mock the midnight bell”; but Falstaff, though aware of the chimes at midnight, cannot bear to face them:

Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head; do not bid me remember mine end.

But face it he must. In the last scene, the one person he had loved, Hal, rejects him; and Hal, knowing Falstaff well, knows precisely what words to use in rejecting him:

                    the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

This is not yet another joke about the size of Falstaff’s girth, although, I suppose, it could be taken as such: for a man such as Falstaff, who loves life, and who cannot bear to be reminded of his own end, the grave must necessarily gape open wider than for other men. We do not see Falstaff die, but, as with Shylock, there is, by the end, nothing else left for him to do: the waiting finally is over, and at the end of the wait, there is nothing. As Hotspur says in his own last moments:

And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.

Falstaff is obviously a very intelligent man, but in Anthony Sher’s performance, he appears utterly deluded on one vital point: he picks up not the slightest hint of the disappointment that is awaiting him. Possibly the love he has for Hal blinds him to what should really have been blindingly obvious. In the famous play-acting scene in Part One, Falstaff plays Hal while Hal plays his own father, and Falstaff, as Hal, pleads with Hal, as the king, not to banish Falstaff. “I do, I will,” replies Hal. I remember Robert Stephens as Falstaff realising during that play-acting scene that something wasn’t right – that this wasn’t quite play-acting any more: and his pleas not to be banished were genuine and heartfelt. But Sher’s Falstaff is utterly blind to any of this: right up to Hal’s devastating words, he is putting on a show. And when Hal’s words do come, he is not sure what to make of them: it is all too easy for him to think of them merely as part of the show they were putting on.

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

For Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is a showman. He knows full well that not only is he witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in others. Sher delivers his lines with the comic timing of a stand-up comedian. And indeed, as these plays progress, he often has to do what are, effectively, stand-up routines directed at the audience. They have to be directed at the audience because the one person who is capable of appreciating his wit, Hal, is not there: from the middle of Part One onwards, Hal, no doubt knowing what he ultimately has to do, keeps his distance. In Part Two, Hal does at one point visit his old haunt, and sees Falstaff again; but, almost immediately, message comes from the court, and Hal, now more aware of his responsibilities than he had previously been, leaves. And in Alex Hassell’s performance, it doesn’t cost Hal much effort to leave: in this interpretation, Hal has already accepted the immense responsibilities he knows are on his shoulders, and this visit to the Boar’s Head tavern but serves to confirm to him how far removed from all this he is now. In the 1991 production, Michael Maloney’s Hal had found the rejection of Falstaff a struggle: in rejecting Falstaff, he was, after all, rejecting a part of himself. But Hal here is made of sterner stuff: he has already outgrown Falstaff, and harbours no sentimentality about past friendship. But for Falstaff, his love of Hal is everything. It is not merely that he was expecting a position in court: more importantly, he was expecting Hal to return his love. But now, rejected, he must remember his own end: the grave does indeed gape for him three times wider than for other men. He tells Shallow – and, more to the point, he tells himself – that Hal will call for him shortly in private; but the man who used to spin the most outrageous of lies at the drop of a hat can no longer even lie convincingly even to himself. Shakespeare had made no attempt earlier to gloss over Falstaff’s predatory nature: we know Falstaff precisely for the deeply reprehensible person he is. And we know that Hal’s decision is, morally, perfectly correct. And yet, this scene, no matter how it is performed, no matter how it is interpreted, breaks the heart: we leave the theatre lamenting what we know is right. The chimes at midnight are mingled chimes.

At the heart of these plays, I think, are those scenes in Gloucestershire. There is little reason in terms of plot to have those scenes at all: they do not contribute to the plot, and neither do they have what we may describe as “dramatic tension”. But Shakespeare knew what he was doing: even at so early a stage in his career, he was writing a new kind of drama, which, even now, perhaps, defies analysis. And those scenes were superbly done here. Twenty-three years ago, I had seen Robert Stephens and David Bradley as Falstaff and Shallow; this time, the parts were taken by Anthony Sher and Oliver Ford Davies. Different, but equally wonderful. And Mistress Quickly now was played by Paola Dionisotti, whom I had seen in the same theatre on my first visit to Stratford some thirty-six years earlier, giving a thrilling performance as Isabella in Measure for Measure. It all seemed to add an extra layer of meaning to Falstaff’s and Shallow’s ruminations – poignant and farcical at the same time – on the passing of time. After Falstaff’s rejection in the final scene, which I knew would happen but which choked me up all the same, I came out of the theatre, and, before driving home, sat by the river for a while, trying to digest what I had seen. Heaven knows how many times I have experienced these plays – on the page, on stage, on television, on audio recordings; but each time, the experience really does knock the stuffing out of me. I suppose, if I were to go out of my way to be critical with this production, I could find one or two faults: I would question, for instance, the idea of presenting Hotspur as so charmless and boorish a character. Trevor White as Hotspur certainly had a fine stage presence, and projected a sort of manic energy; however, presenting Hotspur in such a manner did mean that we felt little sense of loss at his death, and those heart-stopping final words of his passed for very little. However, given the sheer magnificence of these productions, it is churlish to cavil. I could quite happily go back and live through these two plays all over again.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful commentary here. Something else has changed in the 23 years since you first saw these two plays performed on the same day. You have grown older (along with the rest of us) and can feel more keenly the emotions stirred by the inevitable coming of death. It’s all right for the old king to die, but someday it will be me, and that day grows closer. This is why great literature affects us more — not less — as we grow older. We have more experience with life’s truths, including the final one.

    Reply

    • Indeed – my being older, and having so many past associations with the place, somehow enhances the significance of Shakespeare’s themes of the passage of time, of ageing, of disappointed expectations, and of mortality.

      I have many associations with this place, more than I could cram into a single post. For instance, the Romeo and Juliet I saw there was with my wife, the very night after we were married.

      These plays seem to be about … well, about everything, really! I still can’t get over just how wonderful they are.

      Reply

  2. I’m going to have to back and look at Part II as plotless … Because it doesn’t feel plotless, but I think you are right! I’m also with you, the more I see the Henrys, the better they become.

    Reply

    • Shakespeare had more or less dispensed with plots in a couple of other plays as well, I think – Love’s Labour’s Lost, and, once they get into the Forest of Arden, As You Like It. But those were comedies, and this one’s a “chronicle” play, a “history”, and it is very unexpected here. I think we had to wait till Beckett to see again such a lack of forward movement, and this stasis being the very point of the drama. But, for my money, Shakespeare does so much more even than Beckett (yes, i accept that’s an unfair comparison).

      It strikes me, incidentally, that the second act of Hamlet is also very static – until it exploes into action in the third act.

      Reply

      • Yes, I had forgotten about As You Like It. Nothing would happen at all after everyone runs off to Arden if Rosalind didn’t engineer it, but she’s so lovely, we forgive her.

  3. Posted by Michael H. on July 3, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Wonderful, heartfelt, incisive account of Stratford and these wonderful plays, Himadri.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Brian Joseph on July 3, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Superb commentary.

    As you allude to Falstaff’s grief over his rejection by Hal is indeed one of Shakespeare’s great moments and something that I have spent a bit of time pondering.

    Thanks for mentioning the “I do, I will,” moment. So powerful and if played correctly it can be tragically sublime. I would have loved to have seen Robert Stephens interpretation of that.

    Reply

    • It’s wonderful, isn’t it?

      Sadly, Robert Stephens has not left us a recording of himself as Falstaff. However, the BBC Shakespeare productions from the early80s, with Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, are superb. (I wouldn’t recommend the more recent BBC Hollow Crown series, despite the almost universal praise it has received.) And on BBC audio, there are superb performances you can download with Timothy west magnificent in the role of Falstaff.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Jason Wilson on October 19, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    I agree about hollow crowns Falstaff not being the greatest but I did love Jeremy Irons king – his insomniac wandering during the uneasy lies the head speech was fabulous

    Reply

    • Hello Jason, and welcome. The cast of The Hollow Crown was certainly top-notch, and myexpectations wer every high, but in the event, I thought the productions were awful. I realise i was in a very small minority in thinking this: the series has garnered universal praise. But I got a good coupel of rants about it – here, and here (and, especially, in the comments below the line).

      I doubt, though, that anyone at the BBC will be losing much sleep over a few dyspeptic rants from a lone blogger…

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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