Henry IV Part 1 is something of a misnomer, as the play is not really about Henry IV at all. This king's rule was founded on rebellion and regicide; and, given the political sensitivities of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare had to be cautious in his portrayal of a successful usurper. The result was that Henry was marginalised in his own two plays.
Before Henry took on the surname IV, he had been called Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt and grandson of the mighty Edward III. His royal credentials were thus impeccable; however, so were those of his effete cousin, Richard II, and he had been on the throne since he was ten. Ambitious, alpha male, Bolingbroke toppled Richard in 1399, and had him murdered a year later. Henry thus won the crown, but was thereafter that worst of things - a murderous usurper. A walking PR disaster.
For this reason, any mention of Henry IV at the time of Shakespeare ran the risk of royal rebuke. The first play in the Henriad tetralogy, Richard II, was thus watered down by Shakespeare's theatre company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men; with the vital "seizing of the throne" scene cut altogether. Henry IV Pt. 1, the second in the series of plays, was equally problematic. How to portray the newly enthroned challenger, without justifying rebellion and regicide? Shakespeare's solution was to keep Henry out of the picture for much of play, while concentrating on the other characters - Falstaff, Hotspur and Young Hal, the unruly youth who would go on to become the heroic Henry V. Portraying the youthful antics of a national treasure was safer ground than exploring the personality of a successful usurper.
Shakespeare shaped our understanding of many of the men and women who dominated England from the reign of King John to that of Henry VIII. Because Shakespeare rendered Henry IV as vague and formless, so he remains for most people today. The king's loss of profile was our gain, however; and, instead of a royal lead role we get three inflated characters - one, more inflated than the others.
The story of Henry IV is quite simple. Having disposed of Richard II, Henry was haunted by the murder; and was gripped by uncertainty, and a desire to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his sins. Meanwhile, there were rumblings of discontent among influential elites in the North, in Wales and in Scotland. Power was deserting the directionless monarch. On 1st July 1403, Henry received a message from Percy, Earl of Northumberland, demanding twenty thousand pounds in alleged debts to him and his dashing son, Henry, the Hotspur. Percy had been one of the king's co-conspirators in the overthrow of Richard, and this was an outrageous and disloyal provocation. In modern parlance, the King had been dissed, and was well pissed.
The flashpoint in the narrative comes when the campaigning Hotspur takes Scottish prisoners, but refuses to hand them over to Henry. The angry king summons the wayward Percys, and their ally Worcester to assert his authority; but the talks go badly. Upon leaving, the turbulent noblemen resolve to revolt, and they make alliances with the Scots and Welsh against Henry.
Meanwhile, the king is preoccupied with the general uselessness of his son, Henry, or Hal. He has received continuous news feeds that the youthful prince is partying day and night at the Boar's Head, Eastcheap, with the notorious old scoundrel, Falstaff. Confronted with this political crisis, Henry's rage and frustration are made worse by his inability to rely on his son for support. Hal has shown no interest in - or aptitude for - proving himself in battle. With Percy's challenge, conflict was now inevitable, and here was the perfect opportunity for the prince to earn his spurs. Henry rues the contrast between his wastrel son, and Northumberland's pride and joy, the dashing, chivalric, Hotspur. In once scene Henry wishes his son had been swapped with the headstrong, but more worthy young warrior.
Hal, however, has been learning from his adventures into the underworld. With such a stern, distant father, Hal had rebelled, and found himself a genial, proxy father-figure in Falstaff - one through whom he learned much about life, love, morals and vice. For much of the proceedings, Hal and Falstaff are in playful conflict; and through Socratic cuts and thrusts, the themes of life, honour, honesty and duty are explored.
When the call up comes, the emotionally intelligent Hal is up for the fight, knowing that in order to redeem himself to his father, and the court generally, he will have to excel on the battlefield. This he does, and in the thick of the bloodshed we see young Hal transform into the man who would eclipse his father as Henry V. The young prince leads an army in aid of his father and indeed saves his life. In a climactic scene, he fights and defeats the dashing, uber-warrior Hotspur. Father and son are reconciled.
All then is well, for now.
The text is based heavily on an anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, which was popular in the last part of the sixteenth centuries, played by troupes up and down the land. On one occasion in 1587, the crack team of the Queen's Men visited Stratford upon Avon, and performed the play; and it is highly likely that Shakespeare was in the audience. Ten years later, the Bard revised and refined the existing narrative and characters to great effect.
In the original play that so impressed Shakespeare in Stratford, there was an outrageous fat old Knight called Sir John Oldcastle, who drank and fornicated in equal measure. In rewriting the narrative, Shakespeare retained the character and his name, but fleshed out the old knight, turning him into a giant, Dionysian presence. Then something happened that changed the play forever. In 1596, the Lord Chamberlain, patron of Shakespeare's acting company died, and was replaced by Lord William Cobham, who took no pleasure in theatre. The new puritan firebrand, had Sir John Oldcastle as an ancestor, and insisted that the name of his saintly, protestant forefather be respected. Shakespeare thus decided to change the character's name to Sir John Falstaff - also a real man who knew Henry V. Falstaff was a famous debaucher who owned a pub cum brothel in Southwark called - would you believe it - The Boar's Head (the name of the inn in the play). Shakespeare toyed with this change in the character's name when Hal called Falstaff "my old lad of the castle." Oldcastle was the character's original name. The Castle was another notorious brothel in Southwark.
The play is dominated by the rebranded Falstaff, the fat, dissolute old knight of the realm, who - through battles, affairs and gallons of sack (fortified wine) - has perfected a strangely coherent moral philosophy. Comic, wise and disgusting in equal proportions, he is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, a favourite with audiences ever since. Queen Elizabeth was a particular fan of the genial debaucher, and demanded that Shakespeare write a further play - a comedy about Falstaff, where he falls in love. Shakespeare obliged in the brilliant Merry Wives of Windsor, which included the Henriad's cohort of supporting characters, such as the tart with a heart, Mistress Quickly, and Bardolph, the ruddy alcoholic. Perhaps concerned that he was becoming a one trick pony, Shakespeare killed the roaring libertine off early in Henry V.
The performance at the RSC was of course, quite brilliant. Anthony Sher was mesmerising, as Falstaff roared, chuckled, reflected and philosophised while drinking his beloved sack. This was a life affirming performance, and I loved every second of Sher's embodiment of the libertarian rogue. To play Young Hal to Anthony Sher's Falstaff must be a daunting prospect, but Alex Hassell showed no reserve as he caroused, laughed and teased the old buffoon without mercy. Hal's gradual transformation from partying rich kid to leader of men was superbly realised.
Antony Byrne is one of my favourite actors. I first saw him as Mowbray in Richard II, and loved his alpha, swaggering performance. In this he played a similar character, the Early of Worcester, who betrays Henry. Again the performance was butch and brilliant. Meanwhile, Trevor White played the dashing Henry Hotspur was enormous energy, bringing a danger and unpredictability to the role that took the breath away. The scene with his wife, played by Jennifer Kirby, was hair-raising in its intensity, with the actress matching his brutal energy with finely observed cleverness and guile. Whereas Jennifer Kirby's role was short, her performance of it was as memorable as other more major roles.
Some performances of smaller roles also caught the eye. Youssef Kerkour played the Earl of Westmoreland with authority, and a stage presence that belied the limited lines. Martin Bassindale played Peto with freshness and immediacy; and nailed the key line in one of my favourite parts of the play, "Falstaff!—Fast asleep behind the arras, and snorting like a horse."
On the whole, then, this was a dazzling, energetic and hilarious production of a brilliant play. Falstaff stole the show of course. That's just how Shakespeare intended it. Having Antony Sher as Falstaff could have meant this role completely outshone everything else. However, Sher's generosity as an actor is such that, as he dazzled and delighted, he allowed the others to shine too.
The only character who didn't fizz was Henry IV - just as Shakespeare, and the fine actor, Jasper Britton, intended. The eponymous lead character was not the lead role after all, making this a strangely radical, imbalanced kind of play. With Falstaff in it, it was bound to be.