Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History

Into a new millenium

73The final decade of the twentieth, and the first decade of the twenty-first centuries proved a golden age for Shakespeare's English histories on stage, particularly in England, North America, and Australia. In England, Adrian Noble began his directorship of the RSC with a well-received and impressively designed production of both parts of Henry IV at Stratford in 1991. Peter Holland has labeled these "the triumphant histories," noting Noble's "exciting stage pictures," innovative use of vertical space, and creative use of visual devices that echoed and resonated across the two plays. The battle of Shrewsbury, for example, made striking use of the throne:

74. . . through the stage floor there came, rising further and further, a seething, writhing tableau, figures struggling in slow motion for the throne with a woman screaming silently at the horror of war to one side (Holland 106).

75Again, father-son relationships were central: Michael Billington's glowing review of the Barbican transfer describes Julian Glover's king as "a harsh head of state whose peremptoriness provokes the rebels and whose steadfast denial of emotion alienates his son," and Robert Stevenson's "deeply moving" Falstaff as "a solitary hedonist yearning for a son." Michael Maloney's Prince Hal yearned for affection too, but from a father who was unable to respond.

76The 1990s also saw several interesting productions of the Henry IV plays outside Britain. Ron Daniels directed both parts for the American Repertory Theatre in 1993 using images of the American civil war for the depiction of the court while setting the world of the tavern in the 1990s with a punk Prince Hal (Tropea 40). Barbara Gaines presented a more traditional staging of the two plays in 1999 for Chicago's Shakespeare Repertory that could be seen individually or in a single evening. The production was acclaimed for its strong lead performances (Gaines and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre revisited the plays again in 2006 and presented them at the RSC's Swan theatre as part of the Complete Works season). In Australia, John Bell directed a conflated four-hour version of Henry IV Parts One and Two for the Bell Shakespeare Company in 1998 and followed this with a linked production of Henry V in 1999. Bell had performed in the play himself as Prince Hal in Richard Wherret's landmark, Breugel-inspired Henry IV in Sydney, 1978. His own production was set in contemporary Britain, reflecting Bell’s belief that "the historical references are so specific, it would have seemed folly to try and ‘Australianise’ it" (Bell 258-9). Instead the production created space for its audience to draw analogies with the late twentieth century through the invocation of an eclectic modern world. The cast wore grungy op-shop clothes, the music was aggressive heavy rock, and the focus of the set was a steep ramp flanked by wire-mesh fencing suggesting a bleak and dangerously out-of control society. Joel Edgerton’s Hal had to make his way through a Britain marked by division and inequality.

77The 2000s were ushered in by another RSC history play cycle, "This England," encompassing eight plays, but with varying venues, design concepts and directors. The two parts of Henry IV were directed by Michael Attenborough and staged at the Swan theatre in traditional costume, in sharp contrast to Richard II in modern dress at The Other Place. According to Russell Jackson, William Houston presented a "thrillingly unnerving" prince (120) and Desmond Barrit's Falstaff was "surprisingly gentle: quick-witted but never domineering" (118), nevertheless for many critics it was David Troughton's careworn king who impressed the most: the physical discomfort he endured from the crown spoke volumes about his uneasy head.

78Interestingly, many productions of Henry IV, Part One from the first decade of the twenty-first century reflected a return to the days when the figure of Falstaff dominated the play. Reviews of Scott Wentworth's 2001 Henriad production in Stratford Ontario single out Douglas Campbell's Falstaff as the highlight, and of course the casting of Kevin Kline as Falstaff for the first Broadway production of the twenty-first century at New York's Lincoln Center in 2003-4 sent a clear signal that he would the center of the show. As Diana E. Henderson has pointed out, the Lincoln Center production had several other recognizable cast members--including Ethan Hawke as Hotspur and Richard Easton as Henry IV--but it was Kline who featured in publicity and reviews (378). Directed by Jack O'Brien, and using an adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV by Dakin Matthews, the production has been described as "a conservative, boiled-down version of Shakespeare's history" which relegated the king and his heir to the background and served instead as "a generous vehicle for Kevin Kline and Ethan Hawke" (Magelssen 99).

79Other acclaimed Falstaffs of the decade included Michael Gambon in 2005 and Roger Allam in 2010. Both appeared in seasons of the two Henry IV plays; Gambon at London's National Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and Roger Allam at Shakespeare's Globe, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Reviews of Gambon's performance were glowing. By all accounts he presented a complex Falstaff who was "mischievous, cowardly, garrulous, twinkly, sly, bibulous" (Evans 74), but also "money-grubbing, crude and deeply, darkly afraid of death" (Wolf). Gambon's star-power was balanced by strong performances from Matthew Macfadyen's prince and David Bradley's king however, and Hytner's direction drew attention to the wider implications of the history with evocative visual images of a war-devastated land (Tatspaugh 325). Roger Allam won the Olivier best actor award for his Falstaff in 2010. It was a richly comic performance for much of which he had the audience eating out of his hand (Smith 84), but it was also seen as a popularizing move which distorted the balance of the plays. Peter J. Smith wrote:

80In making Falstaff the productions' presiding deity, Dromgoole was putting Henry IV's eggs into a single comic basket. This is certainly a feasible option and, given the uniquely heterogeneous audience at the Globe, an understandable one. But it flattens the complexities of the plays and, in spite of the brilliance of Allam, there was a sense that much of their intricate political texture had been ironed out (Shurgot 83).

81At the RSC's Courtyard theatre in Stratford and later the Roundhouse in London, David Warner also presented a highly regarded Falstaff in 2007-2008 ("fit to rank with the finest--an unsmiling but fabulous, insouciant amuser" (de Jongh) and "a subtle but sly and heartbreaking Falstaff" (Gelber)). This performance, however, was part of a major history cycle which relied heavily on ensemble playing. The cycle was directed by Michael Boyd (with Richard Twyman responsible for Henry IV, Part 2). Boyd started with the Henry VI plays, first staged in 2006, then in 2007-2008 moved on to Shakespeare's "prequel." When all eight plays were finally running, 34 actors were playing about 264 parts (Hewison). The cycle was praised for the depth and strength of its acting, its stylized representations of an England at war, and its striking visual imagery. Some reviewers felt nevertheless that there was a downside to the cycle format: the individuality of a play like Henry IV, Part One tended to be subsumed by the overall concept of the cycle and its sense of the sweep of history. More than one review reported that it was hard to respond to the humor of Henry IV, Part One after the emotive demands of Richard II.

82This consequence of the history cycle format was even more evident with Benedict Andrews's highly compressed (eight plays over eight hours) adaptation of the English histories as "The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2" for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009. The cycle was visually stunning and bookended by impressive performances by Cate Blanchett as Richard II and Pamela Rabe as Richard III, but the two parts of Henry IV got lost somewhere in the middle, reduced to the bare bones of Henry IV's guilt and regret and a mutually exploitative and seedy sexual relationship between Ewen Leslie's prince and John Gaden's Falstaff. In effect Shakespeare's play became a radically new text, contributing to a gruelling nightmare vision of the workings of power.

83The performance history of Henry IV, Part One provides graphic illustration of the multiple and often contradictory possibilities the play-script offers. Different voices have been privileged in different times and places. The play has been staged as both pro and anti-war, as celebrating the establishment of strong, effective central government and as showing the cynicism and heartlessness of a Machiavellian power machine. It has been presented as an affirmation of the importance of order in society and as a radical expression of anarchic impulses. In the face of such evidence it is absurd to posit any definitive, "correct" way of doing Henry IV, Part One. The text will defy us at every turn.