Did Shakespeare invent the comic book super hero? Hal, the dissolute, debauched young man who is disconnected from his family, but transforms into the all-conquering warrior Prince, may have always fitted that bill, but now even more so in Gregory Doran’s production, which re-enforces the image with the emergence of an over-the-top super villain. Trevor White’s Hotspur, with bleached blond hair, crazed for revenge, unpredictable and almost demented, would be the perfect opponent for Superman or Batman and he is the most original and striking feature of this vivid interpretation of what is, arguably, The Bard’s most thrilling play. Alex Hassell makes an affable, but lightweight Hal, more convincing in the taverns of Cheapside than on the battlefields of Northern England, but, in the context of an everyman thrown into “saving the World”, he is perfect. Jasper Britton is also excellent as the newly-crowned King, still uncertain of his grip on power after deposing Richard II so ruthlessly and constantly casting nervous glances over his shoulder. Of course, this is a play that is always there to be stolen by the actor playing Sir John Falstaff and, living up to expectations, Antony Sher is absolutely magnificent in the role, exuding all the charisma that would have drawn the wayward Hal towards him. Sher has distinguished himself in most of Shakespeare’s prominent character parts, but he has now become a brilliant physical comic, as seen when he first appears, emerging from under the sheets at the foot of Hal’s bed, just as two buxom ladies are departing, or when his rotund figure lies prostrate on the battlefield, faced with the near-hopeless task of rising to his feet unaided. Yet, for all the clowning, Sher captures perfectly the pathos of a once gallant knight, now sadly diminished by the ravages of the bottle. Doran’s direction focusses on the play’s traditional qualities, but his production is modern, crisp and quick moving, making full use of the uncluttered, projecting stage. Part II is usually a more difficult play, but it will be fascinating to see how this excellent company tackles it.
Performance date: 28 August 2014
(A review of Henry IV Part II will appear here later in the year, after the transfer of these productions to the Barbican Theatre in London)