Drunk Theatre: “Henry IV, Part One” and “Part Two”, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican

henry iv rsc ft

Last week I had three days off in a row (unprecedented pleasure!) and on Wednesday night I stopped by the Barbican ten minutes before curtain to see which Henry IV was playing, and whether there were any tickets left. It was Part One, and I got what I think must be the best seat in the Barbican. It’s AA3 in the upper circle, and I think it is the best because:

  1. It is £10
  2. The view is hardly restricted at all
  3. When you leave it opens straight out onto a martini bar.
Thirty seconds away from your seat.


AA3 is also right against the railing, so you can press your face against it once the martinis start working, and next to the bar is a loo with no queue. I’m never buying a ticket for another seat there again.

Henry IV, Part One (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

Antony Sher is the big name, playing Falstaff. He said all the words very well, which sounds patronising but is really incredibly difficult with lines as dense as Falstaff’s: not a bad joke was dropped. He started at depressing and tired from the first scene, which I think is a mistake as it doesn’t leave anywhere to go in Part Two.

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is hot and takes his shirt off quite often, hurrah. His best friend Poins (Sam Marks) is also hot and takes his shirt off but not quite as often (this is remedied in Part Two). Both were Fine. Hal was a bit self-loathing about hanging around in Eastcheap all the time, but not sure on how to break out of it. The speech where he explains to the audience that it’s all part of a grand PR plan read like self-delusion that he kind of knew was self-delusion.

Northern rebel Hotspur (Trevor White) was not at all awkward like the character sometimes is, just angry. He, Warwick and Northumberland were very macho physical with each other, and the first scene about the rebel plot involved a lot of throwing each other around and doing intense talking while holding the other person’s throat. This dropped a lot of the humour but laid the work for the uprising falling apart later, from the potential rebel who writes to Hotspur to drop out to Northumberland just failing to turn up at the big battle. This is not a rebellion that is based on trust and good relationships among the conspirators, which is likely a reaction to Bolingbroke’s original breach of trust with them that prompted the uprising in the first place. I am not sure about this choice, because it made all the scenes about the rebellion veer hard into Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other, and at least for me, you have to work harder to make me care about a bunch of rich white guys yelling, especially if you are the Royal Shakespeare Company. It should not be assumed that the audience will come with you, or care. It also meant rebellion lacked the bright apocalyptic feeling behind ‘Die all, die merrily’; there just wasn’t enough warm verve there.

Hotspur and Kate Percy (Jennifer Kirby)’s marriage was the usual mix of exasperation, insecurity and desperate love, two people who do love each other very much but can’t figure out how to say so, are sharp and jumpy and often decide to just drop it and run away instead of trying to thread the minefield of miscommunication. In such a hostile and fragmented family, Hotspur may very well have wanted to talk to his wife about the rebellion, but couldn’t bring himself to make the leap of trust, and Kate clearly saw that and internalised it (‘nay, since you do not love me, I will not love myself’). There was a bit where he held her up with one hand while speaking verse, which was quite hot. The clearest and most trusting relationship Hotspur had was with the Scottish fighter Douglas, which was based simply on enthusiasm for fighting, in which there is no room for misunderstandings.

Sitting in AA3 also means you get a good view of Sir Walter Blunt’s dead body lying half in the wings for the whole battle scene. Poor Walter Blunt.

Finally, the script changed the minor character’s name from ‘Gadshill’ to ‘Rakehell’ for no apparent reason? I think the audience can figure out that a character with a London place name, who turns up in the middle of the night at an inn and to whom everyone responds “Oh, go away, I’m onto you!” is a bit dodgy? It just felt annoyingly patronising and not necessary.

Henry IV, Part Two (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican)

I’m coming to realise that Part Two is actually my favourite, after on Wednesday I found I was a bit sad that Part One was the one showing that night. It is extremely interesting and admirable, in my opinion, how much Shakespeare commits to doing everything he did in Part One all over again, but more crap.

Both parts have Hal and Poins pulling a hilarious practical joke on Falstaff in the pub. In Part One this is a great setpiece showing off Falstaff’s pleasingly self-aware exaggeration, and a flourishing coup de rhetoric in which he gets out of embarrassing both himself and Hal. In Part Two, Hal and Poins disguise themselves as bar staff and hide, and wait for Falstaff to say something embarrassing, but he doesn’t; Hal and Poins make fun of him for his affection for the sex worker Doll Tearsheet – but Falstaff and Doll already find their own relationship amusing, and don’t care – and then pull off their disguises to go “it was us all along!” to which everyone says “Oh, um, okay?”.

Both parts have a rebellion. In Part One this has Hotspur, Glendower, the great map scene which is possibly the best scene in both plays, compelling lines like ‘Send danger from the east unto the west, so honour cross it from the north to south’ and ‘broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong’, an over-the-top fightin’ Scotsman, a super dramatic full-circle-coming mano a mano, Harry a Harry fight, Falstaff fake dying, Prince John being a cold dick, a thrilling sense of catastrophe. Now – name me one of the rebels in Part Two. (You can have Hastings because of that line about him sounding bottoms.) Name me one thing they’re cross about. Quote me one line from any of them. They are, in my opinion, absolutely the shittest rebellion in Shakespeare. And when Prince John, notable d-bag extraordinaire, tells them “oh hey, we 100% agree with all your terms, why don’t you dismiss all your army and have a drink with us, and um we are keeping our army ready with swords aimed at you because of Reasons” they just go “oh man, brilliant, okay! We win! Way to go Team Us!” Muppets!

There are even smaller little echoes that are notably worse in Part Two: In both parts, Falstaff casually raises troops for his commission, and in Part One he laughs them off to Hal as ‘food for powder, food for powder’, a chilling joke that is I think one of Shakespeare’s strongest anti-war arguments. In Part Two there’s a tedious scene of him and his mates auditioning recruits that’s only bearable because his friends, Shallow and Silence, are so lovely. In Part One, Prince John’s cold dickery takes up about two lines; in Part Two it takes the place of a climactic battle, since he tricks the rebels into betraying themselves then immediately sends them off to execution, and Falstaff stretches out the time spent on it by complaining about it to the audience.

This is on purpose, I’m sure, the point of the play is Everything’s Shit Now. And I’m not being mean when I say the RSC is much better at Everything’s Shit Now than Whoo Rebellion Pub Whee! There’s a kind of static degrading that an establishment ensemble company can do more easily than the unhewed energy of the northern rebellion and the Boar’s Head. Part Two is about ripening, maturation and the death and decay that must come along with that, and this production conveyed that very fully and evocatively.

The other thing about my ticket on Thursday is that it turned out to be press night, so the upper circle was closed and I couldn’t get my new favourite seat. However, my £10 circle seat turned out to open onto another bar, the official RSC Press Reception, so at the interval I obviously walked confidently straight in and grabbed a glass of white and pretended to tweet thoughtfully. Everyone else there had been to Part One in the afternoon and to the previous three drinks receptions (pre-show Part One, interval Part One, pre-show Part Two) and I was confusingly one of the least drunk people in the room, an experience I’m not used to. I had a nice brief chat with the digital editor of a magazine I will not name, about the word ‘disruptive’, and some ‘really potent pot’ he had in my hometown of Portland. Never prouder.

Other impressions from Part Two:

Kate Percy and her father-in-law Northumberland were alone when she gave her good speech to him about why he shouldn’t start another rebellion, and although I thought her grief acting afterwards was a bit OTT considering how relatively pulled-together you have to be to make a speech like that, I liked the implication that they had a good enough relationship that she thought he’d listen to her. They also shared a small bit of exasperation about Hotspur’s Hotspurness which was lovely.

Pistol enters from the ‘hell’ trapdoor below the stage in a puff of smoke, or steam, with his hair standing up and his face smudged. He was doubled with Rumour, and that and the jokes objectifying him – about how he may ‘go off’, for example – made him seem a bit otherworldly and not human.

Oliver Ford Davies as the retired Gloucestershire judge Justice Shallow, who went to university with Falstaff, was simply lovely, friendly and open, someone you really want to be friends with in real life. So much of the plays are about conflict, realpolitik and deception, but every scene with Shallow it was just a joy to be in the same room as him.

For me the pleasure of Drunk Theatre (other than, um, the drinking, and the theatre) is the occasional moment late in the second act, when the cogs stop whirring and I just stop and go ‘oh, shit, that’s good’.

In the last ten minutes of Part Two, Henry IV sits on his deathbed, rattling off king lessons to his son Hal, and got to the advice to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign broils’, ie to distract from problems at home by starting wars abroad – which we know Hal, when he becomes Henry V, will do in France. At this line Prince John, Hal’s younger brother and one of the play’s worst people, who has just brutally put down a rebellion by lying, appears in the doorway in silver armour, holding his helmet on his hip, lit in chilly blue-white light. Cripes, guys, that was a good image. I’ll pay £10 for that any day.


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