REVIEW: Royal Shakespeare Company: Henry IV Part I

Theatre Royal, Newcastle
25th September

This Thursday was the opening night of Henry IV Part 1 at the Theatre Royal, the first play shown as part of this year’s RSC season.  Having never seen one of Shakespeare’s histories in production, I was thoroughly looking forward to being totally absorbed in tales of medieval monarchy. Henry IV Part 1 details the growing conflict between the King’s court and the powerful Percy family from Northumberland, focusing on the role of the King’s hedonistic son, who, greatly influenced by the revelling character of Falstaff, spends his time playing tricks on his friends and gallivanting in brothels rather than living up to his father’s expectations for the future King.

The production was very authentic, a wooden set and costumes of aged leathers, rusty gold and dusty velvets, taking us right back to the time of Henry and his court. The actors portrayed the evident Shakespearian creativity in the witticisms of the characters and Falstaff philosophising on love, lust, honour, merit and work.

Although my seat was right up in the gods, the second the play began I forgot the queasy sensation of looking down from a great height and found that my birds-eye perspective actually made for a spectacular view. The aesthetics of the play and the very carefully crafted choreography of movement and staging of both the characters and the set throughout lent itself to being viewed from above, where I could see all the details of the stained glass window projection and the intricacies of the large medieval map they used in discussions of dividing the kingdom, somewhat topical in light of the recent referendum despite being written over 400 years ago.

Falstaff, played by Sir Anthony Sher, was particularly brilliant.  He captured perfectly the semi-wise ramblings of a drunken man and his charming yet mischievous persona led us to simultaneously laugh at his foolishness and side completely with his perceptions. My favourite scene was between him and Prince Hal, with Falstaff describing in gory detail his triumph over nearly 100 robbers, exaggerating at every turn his gallantry, stealth and speed, not knowing that Prince Hal (being one of the only two robbers that actually ambushed them) is aware of the truth the whole time: Falstaff screamed and ran at the first sign of slight danger.

At times, I felt the play veered slightly too far into medieval grandeur, one scene seeming as though it had been plucked straight from Lord of the Rings. The mystical wives of the Percys appeared with their flared sleeves and long plaited hair, singing Welsh folk songs in their original language, while their husbands lay their heads on their laps and fires were lit in stone pots by men in capes and silver head pieces.

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the production. I loved the combination of historical fact and Shakespeare’s self-approved poetic license and thought it was presented excellently with the brassy characters, the traditional costumes, the dramatic soliloquies and choreographed battle scenes. I would certainly recommend a trip to the Theatre Royal this RSC season.

RSC present Henry IV Part I at Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Saturday 4th October. To view the rest of the RSC season visit the Theatre Royal’s website


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