Part I is the livelier of the plays, introducing Jamie Parker’s roguish Prince Hal as a cad avoiding the acceptance of his royal responsibilities for as long as possible. While Sam Crane’s Hotspur, full of bristling, impetuous frustration, plots a rebellion against King Henry IV, Hal drinks, carouses and thieves with Falstaff and his band of nefarious knaves.
By the end of Part I, Hal has started to mend his ways and in Part II, with battles won and rebellion all but quashed, the business of life – and the country – moving on becomes more prominent.
Though the plays take the king’s name as their title, Oliver Cotton’s Henry IV, a grey-maned, roaring lion of a king, plays a supporting role to his son and Roger Allam’s fat knight, Falstaff.
I have rarely seen an actor command the Globe’s demanding stage quite as completely as Allam, portraying the drinking, scrounging reprobate as a man who may actually believe the fantasies to which he gives voice. Playing up to the crowd, occasionally teetering on the edge of panto, and once, as the rain poured down mid-afternoon, treating the audience to a King Lear adlib, Falstaff’s whole life is an act played out for those around him. On the very rare moments that Allam lets the artifice wash away, there are the tiniest, painful glimpses of regret and pain.
Hal, similarly, is a man torn in two, acting in one fashion while knowing the truth of his life and struggling against it. The golden haired Parker, the image of an heir apparent if ever there was one, gives Hal a jocular swagger and unconstrained wit, but the lines of concern are drawn oft and heavy on his face. The scenes he shares with Allam are among the finest in the plays.
In fact Falstaff’s soliloquy about the nature of honour is one that will stay with me, at once being both counter-cultural at a time when every other day there is a story breaking about a soldier dying on the battlefield, and, somehow, a celebration of life and living.
Director Dominic Dromgoole has found all the humour in Shakespeare’s tale and is unafraid to resort to bodily fluids if they will get a laugh, which they do. Globe regular William Gaunt swaps Part I’s calm, serious, level-headed rebel Worcester for a doddery, impressionable Justice Shallow in Part II, providing a second double act partner for Allam’s Falstaff.
While the play takes in political posturing, coming of age, responsibility, greed and relationships amid a wealth of other themes, in the hands of Parker, Allam and Dromgoole the association between Hal and Falstaff is never far from the audience’s mind. This makes the show’s climax, with Hal now a responsible King and Falstaff expecting his reward, as cold and chilling as the afternoon’s wind and rain.