Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre

Forming a six hour epic, Nicholas Hytner’s productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II take up residence in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre. You can see them on the same day if you so desire (and your bum can take it) but we went on different days as a small thing called work got in the way!

The plays deal with the troubled reign of King Henry IV as he deals with rebellion and civil war, while his son and heir, Prince Hal, prefers to hang around East London with small-time criminals led by the aged, corpulent alcoholic Falstaff. They cover the whole breadth of English society at the time they were written, from aristocratic infighting right the way down to sleazy prostitution.

It wasn’t particularly bad, but it just didn’t have the kind of quality of performance throughout the ensemble that I was expecting. The balance of the comic with the noble, which marks this play as rather unique in Shakespeare’s canon in that the comic content is unusually high for one of his Histories, needs to be carefully observed so that all aspects of the play work and I’m not sure that was achieved particularly well here.

Michael Gambon’s Falstaff is wonderfully funny and strong, a huge stage presence but so much so that David Bradley’s King Henry is blown away: Bradley can’t really compete as he lacks the gravitas that the King ought to have. Likewise, Hotspur as played by David Harewood is such a physical presence that it is hard to imagine Matthew Macfadyen’s Prince Hal ever being able to beat him in combat as Hal’s journey from lad-about-town to potential King isn’t sufficiently developed, focusing too much on the drinking fun.

This is not to say that they are badly acted, all four men do good work as does Naomi Frederick as Hotspur’s wife, but as a whole it just didn’t work for me as a cohesive ensemble. The design is stark and spare, a giant ramp forms the most part of the stage with video screens adding depth and interest, lighting is muted, costumes are dark and traditional, the whole mood tends towards the sombre which is probably for the best, but resulted in my attention sometimes wandering.

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