It’s a challenge I can tell you: remembering the old year can be a struggle, but I’m sure you guys have high expectations of my efforts. I will not disappoint.
Old 2014 was soundly helped out of the door by a visit to the Barbican in the dear old City of London to experience the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of “ Henry IV Part 1. We had the best seats – in the front row of the stalls, slap bang in the middle. We could hear the actors fart.
This Will can write! Civil war threatens, and old king Henry IV’s (both parts) preparations for a trip to the Holy Lands are put on hold when rumours of rebellion by the Northerners, Scots and Welsh – not sure about the Irish - reach his ears. Meanwhile his son Henry, the Prince of Wales, is having a right royal time with his mates; including that old reprobate Sir John Falstaff.
How Falstaff got his title is a bit of a mystery, although it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had turned up in this year’s New Year’s Honours. Not so much Dame Esther Rantzen, more ex Sir Fred the Shred. He is a character and no mistake. Spends a considerable amount of the play drinking sack and lying about his achievements: an English “Don Quixote” but without the windmills.
You can see why young Hal is attracted to him. He gives cover to his own quite unrestrained behavior. There is dad, King H, weighed down by the trails and tribulations of kingship, and what is the heir to the throne doing: planning japes with his mates and Falstaff.
While dad is sending letters here there and everywhere, and the Scots, Welsh and the troublesome Northerners are doing the same, Hal’s fornicating. To be honest we don’t see much of the coupling action, but it’s there: especially in Mistress Quickly’s tavern. It’s basically a knocking shop and an appropriate lodgings for Falstaff.
He’s not so much uninterested in the copulation game, more incapable of rising to the occasion. His unhealthy life style, having left him with a huge belly, makes that act mechanically unlikely. No he’s happy being around sprightly young guys and gals, vicariously enjoying their carnal misadventures.
Falstaff has a lot to say. Whilst he may now be pretty useless with the sword and dagger, his tongue can parry a host of barbed comments and verbal thrusts. Hal is a pretty smart cookie and he delights in this verbal jousting with the old Knight.
But does Hal like Falstaff? It’s an important question. Old Shakespeare doesn’t make it easy for us. I found myself in one instant having extremely warm feelings for the old fellow, and then being quite shocked by his duplicity, his dishonesty and self-deception. Does Hal feel the same?
I don’t know. I think our future king is a darn sight more complicated than your dear scrivener. He is certainly calculating for he makes it clear that he will give up his youthful fun and games when the time is right in preparation for his Kingship. However, he is protecting of Falstaff and his friends. Does that mean he’s fond of him? To my mind Hal sees Falstaff and his world as a useful and welcome distraction from the boredom of court and governance. When the law threatens Falstaff and his mate, Hal steps in. However, not to save them because they’re his friends: but to assert his own status and ownership of these two.
You can over analysis the play, but that’s Shakespeare’s fault; he provides you with so much to chew on.
The performance by Antony Sher as Falstaff was lovely: full of bombastic humour and hints of a realization of his own weaknesses. The court and nobles were extremely effective. These were men of high office: their speech, their deportment and their dress shouted that.
The battle scenes, though limited, were, I thought, well executed. That was probably because for much of the time I was worried they’d fall on our laps, such was the ardour of the hand-to-hand combat, and our proximity to the stage.
I wasn’t so sure about Prince Hal. The actor, who I don’t know, looked a cross between Tim Curry and Ian MacShane. The Scots and Welsh noblemen were pure 16th century stereotypical. Unfortunately, the main Scottish and Welsh protagonists looked like the two out of “Two Hairy Bikers”: It was quite distracting!
But these were minor faults.
Henry IV: Part 1 was a great way to round off 2014. We’ll see in 2015 with Part 2 in early January.
P.S. Where am I on New Year’s Eve? I’m in a hotel in Cumbria a short distance from Egremont. I’m here for a funeral….Well, life has its ups and downs.