Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Henry IV part one - National Theatre Olivier - 19 April 2005

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Designed by Mark Thompson
I find that the third time is the charm when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays. The third time I see any individual Shakespeare play I seem to see the whole of it for the first time. I am always aware that I haven’t really heard some scenes properly before and the third time it all seems to fit together. Of course I still miss stuff; I remember, in my sixth watching of King Lear, when I suddenly heard the “could you undo this button” line. In fact at the time I remember wondering if it was a genuine ad-lib.
Is this production there was a whole “anon, anon, sir” bit that I don’t remember before.
Having said that I stopping missing bit in the third viewing I was up against Michael Gambon’s accent which I couldn’t quite place (West Country, Irish or both?), and which swallowed many of his sentences. When Gambon as Falstaff, first entered with Hal they both apparently urinated. Hal was standing near a tap on a standpipe but I couldn’t see is Falstaff were using anything. Directors seem to like showing characters urinating especially in Shakespeare. They would probably argue that it ‘grounds’ their characters, makes tem seem more realistic. For me, I know that it is more often than not faked – too difficult to guarantee the timing or amount (I think Jane Horrocks as Lady Macbeth was the only time I’ve seen it for real and that’s only because she was dressed in Y-fronts and a vest at the time) – so I don’t quite see the point. It is all faked on stage. Why unnecessarily fake something extreme when everybody knows that stagehands would object to mopping up the real stuff. Jane Horrocks had to bring on a small piece of carpet for her scene.
Michael Gambon’s performance reminded me of his performance in the Caretaker a few years. His Falstaff had more dignity and authority than his tramp but the voice the hair and the drunken attempts to ingratiate himself with Hal did have echoes.
Michael MacFadyen’s Hal (wearing greyish jeans to Falstaffs red/crimson crushed velvet baggys), seemed to be more of an observer than a participator in Falstaff’s revelry. His character seemed to be controlled by his early line about one day having to give up his debauched ways. Another character that seemed different to how I remember him was Ned Poins who here seemed to be a criminal rather than an upper class rogue in a similar mould to Falstaff (much thinner of course) as he is usually seems to be played.
I thought, initially that this was the first time I’d seen Matthew MacFadyen but I have seen him several time before, including a warm and slightly sweaty version of Much Ado About Nothing with Saskia Reeves half a dozen years ago (the heat and sweat was a stage effect rather than bad air conditioning).
The costumes were by and large modern but worn and arranged to give them a slightly older setting. Court characters, especially David Bradley’s Henry IV, wore long coats or modified priests’ robes.
The set was a broad stepped wooden platform in the centre of the stage. It was slightly curved and at the back rose more steeply to a hill-like hump. To the sides were trees receding into the darkness that could produce a gloomy or even desolate appearance to a scene. At the back of the stage were three wide strip-like screens onto which would be projected trees, London streets, stained glass windows or castle ramparts, as appropriate. Mostly they would use a curtain or arras that dropped to halfway back along the platform making a smaller acting area. A hidden flight of stairs led down under the stage from the platform.Ever since I saw the seven of the eight plays in Shakespeare’s Richard-to-Richard sequence (I missed Richard the second) I find myself tempted to trace characters throughout the sequence. For instance the troublesome Aumale in Richard II succeeds his father to become the Duke of York and is killed at Agincourt in Henry V. Of course he doesn’t appear at all in either Henry IV play, but there are others like John of Lancaster who becomes the Duke of Bedford in the Henry VI plays as well as Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester. The male Percy (Duke of Northumberland) line eventually died out in the reign of James I (gunpowder plot I think). Most problematic are the Edmund Mortimers that run through the plays. The Mortimer family seemed to have a habit of naming their first two sons Roger and Edmund. This appears to have gone on for several generations with Rogers calling their first sons Edmund and vice versa. As a result of this there were a lot of Edmund Mortimers knocking around and Shakespeare managed to conflate several of them in later Henry plays.

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