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The Henry Trilogy

Stage 20th November 1986, Roger Malone

Henry IV Part I

The eagerly awaited birth of the English Shakespeare Company was a celebratory occasion, which amply rewarded the anticipation of its first ever audience.

Michael Bogdanov’s direction provided enough imaginative motion to launch this company into such dramatic orbit it could be placed on a par with long established companies.

Any cobwebs that more traditionalist interpretations may harbour were blown away by Bogdanov. Here was a production that caught the flavour of the times, often mirroring them anachronistically with costumes to shrink the distance between us and our history plays.

Michael Pennington is a superlative Prince Hal, his dissipation study in heavy-lidded languor which, despite his constancy with Cheapside, never eclipses his innate regality.

When he returns to his father King Henry – played with resolution and stateliness by Patrick O’ Connell – to take arms against the rebels, his rapid evolution from decadence to dependability is underlined by change of costume. Now a scarlet and gold-braided tunic has replaced the rebellious denim of the dissolute.

Yet it is the corpulent, cocky, cowardly Falstaff of John Woodvine who gives the play its most priceless moments. His irrepressible rhetoric and flair for the outrageous is as vast as his equatorial contours.

The scenes from the Boar’s Head Tavern – whilst irritating in their cumbersome arrival and dispatch under a plethora of props – was the focal point of much merriment, with a trombone playing Bardolph (Colin Farrell), a punk Gadshill (Andrew Jarvis) and spiv Poins (Charles Lawson).

John Price is a vital and honourable Hotspur, while Gareth Thomas brings a commanding dignity to Owen Glendower.

Henry IV Part II

This continuing story of kingly folk is like a reaffirmation of old and joyful associations.

The most cherished reunion is with the rotund reprobate Falstaff – now trilby hated and George Melly suited – swaggering still, but reaching the end of his favours as royal responsibilities inevitably distance the Prince from him.

As if making the most of this autumnal character, John Woodvine returns in a performance that frequently hits dizzying heights in his affectionate delivery of celebrated Falstaffian repartee.

The incomparable Cotswolds scenes, setting the knavish knight amid such illuminating rustics as Clyde Pollitt’s ruminating Robert Shallow and Paul Brennen’s funereal Simon Shadow is exquisite comedy.

In a play that emphasises the ensemble rather than individual performances, here is humour more than honour; decay may pervade the kingdom but the roguery of lower orders is served with ladles of carefully contrived unconscious comedy.

John Price’s gun-tooting Hell’s Angel Pistol, deflated by Jenny Quayle’s black-leather Doll Tearsheet, was a fine example of director Michael Bogdanov’s sure hand, heightening both contrast and comedy.

Michael Pennington’s Prince Hal metamorphoses from wayward son to responsible ruler, showing the first flood of deep emotion in the poignant deathbed scene with his father. Patrick O’Connell gives a moving portrayal as the expiring King emotionally reunited, albeit briefly, with his son.

Henry V

“Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”, advises the dying King in ‘Henry IV part II’. Such wisdom is taken to heart by the newly crowned Harry, who unites his civil war-torn inheritance by picking a fight with France.

Director Michael Bogdanov has saved his most potent pyrotechnics for this, the last, of the English Shakespeare Company’s three Henrys.

The minimalist set of black tabs, black hanger-sized sliding doors at the back of the stage, and two mobile scaffold towers serves this play best of all three. To further our points of visual reference the actors rely on an assortment of props. However, it is often the spaces created by what is left out that leaves the most lasting effect as the story moves through this uncanny vortex of light and dark.

Once the eye has acclimatised to such austerity, the imagination – fired by the clarion-clear richness of the language – depicts the fantastical. Who, seeing Bardolph, Pistol and Nym chant “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” as they embark for the wars at Southampton, is not reminded of the jingoism of the Falklands conflict.

Union Jacks pronouncing patriotism and a banner proclaiming “Fuck the French” sums up the pre-battle nationalism that grips a country of any era better than a cast of thousands.

Michael Pennington is every inch the inspired leader as King, but his “Once more into the breach, dear friends”, is strangely gabbled as he addresses his troops while astride a smouldering armoured tank.

The gore and glory of Agincourt after the machine-gun bursts have subsided is well drawn, with both the wounded French and the jubilant British confronted with death amongst honour.

Andrew Jarvis as the Dauphin presents a suitably arrogant French Prince, while Gareth Thomas’ garrulous Welsh officer Fluellen presents a wry contrast to his stately Lord Chief Justice.

The Trilogy

Toronto Star, 25th May 1987, Robert Crew

In terms of theatrical marathons, it tops even the legendary ‘Nicolas Nickleby’ (8 ½ hours), or the production of ‘Back to Methuselah’ (7 plus hours) at the Shaw Festival last season.

Saturdays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre are now home to a massive Harrython – ‘Henry IV parts I and II’, and ‘Henry V’. Excluding breaks, it amounts to some 9 ½ hours of solid Shakespeare.

The plays can be sampled separately through the week and only a very fine ‘Henry V’ can be recommended without reservation. But to see all three in one day is a rare and enriching theatrical experience, and one that calls for hard concentration and soft seats.

Along with 45 other writers from Canada and the United States, actors like Alan Scarfe and Tanya Jacobs, directors such as Peter Moss and Malcolm Black, I took my seat at 11am last Saturday.

Well after 11pm, I tottered stiffly out of the English Shakespeare’s Harrython, early exasperation have finally given way to exhilaration. ‘We should all get buttons,’ remarked a colleague. ‘How about” I survived the Henry’s”?’

Survival was in doubt after ‘Henry IV Part I’. It’s the weakest of the three productions, tailored by director Michael Bogdanov to set the scene for the plays ahead but lacking a coherent version of its own.

Michael Pennington’s Hal – the man who would be king – is a wonderfully complex and ambivalent creation throughout, while John Woodvine’s upper crust Falstaff swaggers and bluffs his way through the action with nimble-witted élan. But the Hotspur of John Price (later an effective Pistol) is weak and unfocussed.

Both in this play and well into ‘Henry IV Part II’, Bogdanov’s anachronistic mix of costumes and props serves only to confuse. There are medieval knights in full armor alongside troops in modern, camouflaged battlegear, punks in the Boar’s Head Tavern and Edwardian-style gentlemen in the corridors of power.

Modern-dress Shakespeare has always been a contentious issue but the ‘Henry IV’ plays are among the least appropriate for such treatment, with their intense examination of such issues as usurpation and the divine right of kings.

‘Henry V’, however, is a different matter. The surface of the play is a swirl of pageantry and battles but underneath the jingoistic celebration of an ideal ruler lies a certain tension. Schooled among the common people, Hal realizes the emptiness and lack of humanity that can be the price of leadership.

As in his production of ‘Measure for Measure’ at Stratford two years ago, Bogdanov uses Shakespeare to vent his anger at the right-wing, authoritarian government of England (and elsewhere) in the 1980s.

But unlike ‘Measure’, this interpretation is not violently antithetical to the text. The play (attended on Saturday by Broadway star Donna McKechnie, shortly to appear in ‘Sweet Charity’ at the Royal Alex) is presented clearly and directly to the audience.

And there are many moments when the images are strikingly apt. Paratroopers crouching, rifles at the ready, conjure up all the news bulletins from Northern Ireland that flood TV scenes in Britain. Pistol, an Indiana Jones figure in ‘Henry IV Part II’, is menacingly Ramboesque just before the Battle of Agincourt.

And the scene in which the troops set sail for France is brilliantly staged.

What is gained by seeing all three in one day? A sense of the sweep of history, certainly, and astonishment at the skill, range and stamina of this company. Admiration for the theatrical daring and cheekiness of Bogdanov; annoyance that he often doesn’t allow the plays to speak for themselves.

But above all, a timely reminder of the awesome genius that was Shakespeare. That alone makes the whole event eminently worthwhile.

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