Wearing a red cushion for a crown and looking not unlike a character out of Captain Pugwash, Antony Sher as Falstaff sits atop a wooden chair as makeshift throne. Set high upon a bar room table, he presides over a moment of pure Saturnalia that is as memorable a moment as I have ever witnessed in a Shakespeare play. Sher takes the roguish overweight and ageing knight and proceeds to bundle and shuffle him through a tightening political cataclysm with such authority one could find it hard to imagine any other in the role – a masterclass of translation set within a scorching page-turner of a tale.
While the character of Henry is relegated to that of lynchpin, Falstaff as a man is thoroughly explored. Lurching from buffoonery to outright skulduggery, just as we find sympathy with his physical vulnerability and oafish over indulgences, Shakespeare slaps us round the face with Falstaff’s darker manipulative nature – none more so than when the old knight procures an army for the king. First he makes a fortune from well-heeled young men who buy themselves out of service, before picking up a ragtag collection of the ill, the homeless and the condemned, brilliantly portrayed by a stumbling procession of hopeless individuals plodding towards their destiny – “food for powder… to fill a pit as well as better.” We quickly learn that chivalry doesn’t cut it when there is a buck to be made, and in a world where a wrong turn can end in certain death. Sher keeps Falstaff’s good bad guy/bad good guy opposites brilliantly alive to the last, especially when wriggling at the end of young Hal’s jests and jibes, then darker threats.
Gregory Doran’s sparkling direction is both inspired and thrilling. This is the RSC at its most dazzling. The speed and range of the proceedings are breathtaking – bars become battlefields, bedrooms bawdy houses. Scene changes are seamless and beautifully constructed with wooden balconies and stairways, slatted backdrops and a table setting pushed or dropped in as and when required. Lighting effects by designer Tim Mitchell give us chapel settings, soldiers’ encampments, drinking dens or the very heat of battle.
Throughout, there are revelatory performances. Jasper Britton as Henry slow burns a performance that finally boils over into visceral urgency as he rises to confront his rebels. Alex Hassell as Hal, Prince of Wales, although sometimes slightly quiet on stage, none-the-less plays the wastrel, the nascent politician and the heroic fighter with great aplomb. Trevor White’s firecracker of a performance as Hotspur lights up the stage, and there are marvelous supporting roles in Joshua Richards’ utterly convincing portrayal of Owen Glendower and Sean Chapman’s Earl of Douglas. Jennifer Kirby as Hotspur’s wife and Nia Gwynne as Lady Mortimer conduct a wonderful scene at Glendower HQ, with a restless Hotspur miffed as Lady M’s singing in Welsh gains the limelight.
As events begin to circle down to a bitter end-game we all bear witness to Falstaff’s hilarious attempts to survive and preserve his self-respect. That he is an out and out rogue is never in doubt, yet it is he who delivers a withering account of the real meaning of honour. From deep within his corruption comes uncomfortable truth. Magnificent. ★★★★★ Simon Bishop 5/11/14
Photo credit Kwame Lestrade