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Review: Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: April 21, 2014

By Colin Davison

Antony Sher (Falstaff) and Alex Hassall (Hal)

Antony Sher (Falstaff) and Alex Hassall (Hal)

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Shakespeare will be 450 this Wednesday, and has every reason to be pleased with life.

Thousands will converge on Stratford on Saturday morning to watch a celebratory procession of actors, diplomats and street entertainers.

Meanwhile there are early signs of a triumphant venture by the RSC’s new artistic director Greg Doran to stage all 37 plays within six years, several of them, such as both parts of Henry IV, to be transmitted live.

The enterprise started last year with David Tennant’s Richard II, and Doran can again count on a big name, Antony Sher as Falstaff, to draw the wider audience.

His performance is a treat. This is not a grotesque, over-the-top Falstaff, but a believable old rascal, gouty and growly, with a permanent hangover and a bit of the shakes.

Sher is fairly short, so it doesn’t take much padding for the required effect, hilariously exploited when the cowardly knight tries to rise from his back, rolling like an upturned beetle from side to side to regain his flailing feet.

Although the Henry IV plays cover the main political and military skirmishes of his 14-year reign, their main focus is on domestic conflicts, Henry and Hal – the future Henry V, Hal and Falstaff.

Thus, somewhat unusually for Doran, the director keeps the stage relatively free of fancy effects, clearing the way for the riveting personal confrontations that are the highlights of the evenings.

Like any shamed celebrity today, Hal blames his ill reputation on reports by “base newsmongers,” but the worryingly handsome Alex Hassell paces his speech of repentance quite beautifully, building up the passion only at the end.

Jasper Britton achieves an ideal balance as the complex Henry IV - a ruthless soldier who talks of peace while his monks reveal swords below their habits, but a father anguished by a son’s apparent waywardness.

Among many brilliant supporting performances, Trevor White plays the volcanic Hotspur like a man with his wet finger stuck in a light socket, while at the opposite end of excitability Oliver Ford Davies as Justice Shallow can bring the house down with just a silence and a glassy stare.

The plays continue at Stratford until September and will be broadcast live on 14 May and 18 June.

Colin Davison.

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