Henry IV - Parts I and II Review

"The better part of valour is discretion".

This famous line from Henry IV Part 1 is spoken by Falstaff, arguably in the context of extolling the virtues of cowardice. Just as the phrase has taken on new meaning in common currency of adopting a more cautionary approach to embarking on foolhardy or hot-blooded acts, usually in a war context, so too does its meaning extend to the wider themes of the two plays that make up Henry IV, and indeed to Shakespeare's writing of the play itself.

Just about all Shakespeare's English history plays deal with the question of royal succession. This is not just a question of finding a suitable narrative arc, or at least not just a dramatic structure, since there is inevitably much drama in the circumstances that bring about the end of one period of rule and the beginning of the next. Written in 1596, Shakespeare was principally finding a way to consider the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, and discretely indicating where the dangers might lie in the circumstances surrounding the hand-over of the crown to a new ruler. There are several references in the two plays to the past, occasional wary glances towards the future, and questions about the reliability of knowing either. What matters, it is remarked, is the here and now.

Discretion in this regard leads to Shakespeare relegating Henry IV almost to a background figure in the plays that bear his name. It's somewhat ironic then that the story of Henry IV is extended across two plays, but this is also a measure of the true significance of the work. Individually the two parts may seem less satisfying than the self-contained directness of Richard II or Henry V, but there is nonetheless a very clear symmetry that is developed between Part I and Part II, a greater sense of wholeness, and a wider consideration of the struggle for power, the assuming of power and the use of power as it applies more to the nation at large and, more specifically in how it relates to the common people. England itself is examined in Shakespeare's history plays, and that involves much more than just following the events that lead to one king replacing the last.
Key to getting this across is the way in which Shakespeare treats Prince Hal. At the start of Henry IV Part I, he's not exactly playing the role we expect of the heir apparent. Rather he's living a wild life in taverns, involved in all manner of exploits, robbery and carousing with low-life characters and dubious nobles like Sir John Falstaff and his disreputable band of followers. Part I of Henry IV is in many ways a coming of age story for the next king, and Shakespeare's handling of the development of the Hal involves some amount of discretion in its humanising of the future Henry V. Historical facts are reworked, but in a dramatic way that serves the deeper reality. Pitting Hal against Hotspur, Lord Percy, creates a strong dramatic contrast between differing views of how the son of a king should behave, but even within Hal, there's a wider symmetry and contrast that is developed between royalty and the common man. Discretion indicates that Harry must later disavow his relationship with Falstaff when he takes up the crown.

In this respect, Falstaff, or more particularly the relationship that Falstaff has with Prince Hal, is what is really instrumental as the driving force, or perhaps even the actual life force behind the work. It's clearly evident to anyone just how wonderful and complex a creation Falstaff is - one of the greatest characters created by Shakespeare or indeed anyone. He's a crook, a liar, a cheat and a drunk, the Lord of Misrule, but he's also capable of love, great warmth and sensitivity. He values friendships and companions, even if they are not to be treated above himself. In his self-elevation, a knight and yet one of the common people, holding court at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, Jack Falstaff is a kind of Everyman. He's "this little kingdom, man". Much more so than the royalty that are nominally the focus of Shakespeare's history plays, he's the embodiment of England itself in all its honesty, villainy, contradictions and self-delusions.

As real and as human as Falstaff is, he also serves as a funny, witty and charismatic dramatic character that allows the audience to approach the larger historical and national themes of Henry IV, Parts I and II, and he helps identify the part the ordinary person plays within them. Falstaff is central to several of the key scenes across the two plays, and as such provides a very uncommon perspective on historical wars and battles. If his cowardice is exposed at the battle of Shrewsbury, Falstaff's justification is not opportunistic or self-justifying as it is elsewhere among friends. Honour, he so plainly puts it, is for those who can afford it. For royalty and nobles, for those that history is going to put down on record. The ordinary person in a battle, the common man, is synonymous with the dead lying rotting on the battlefield, and Falstaff has no desire to be counted among their number. This is a bold piece of writing, completely at odds with traditional tales of chivalry and honour.

Its significance is borne out in Part II of the play, which opens with a much more sombre tone, one which by a variety of means and implications both discreet and not-so-discreet, depicts an England that is diseased, rotten and corrupt. In Part II, during the Dad's Army recruitment scene, Falstaff also shows that he's not going to put in the line of "honour" any common man who doesn't want to be there either, particularly if he can make some money out of it. Falstaff's little ode to self-interest in "this little kingdom, man", contrasts (in that manner that provides such symmetry and wholeness to the plays) with Henry Bolingbroke's most significant speech about "uneasy the head that wears a crown". The bloody battle he has just fought and his guilt about the manner in which Richard II was deposed brings with it dawning realisation about the nature of ruling. The wider implications it has for a nation are too much for one man to bear. Hal's experience with Falstaff and the common man make him aware of the dangers of this bond and help him realise that duty must necessarily mean setting himself apart from the people he rules.
If I've given considerable time over to those questions of symmetry, wholeness, the depiction of England, the key position of Falstaff and the coming of age of Hal, it's because this all has to be balanced and brought out on the stage, and Greg Doran does that exceptionally well in this 2014 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry IV, Parts I and II. Much lies in the characterisation brought out by the actors and the casting here is good. Antony Sher inevitably steals every scene, as Falstaff ought to, but he's given the necessary space to consider his delivery and he gives it full measure. It seems a little too deliberated at first, but the benefits become evident later, allowing the significance to be drawn much more clearly. Jasprer Britton's Henry Bolingbroke is suitably anguished, the king's decline gradual and credible. Alex Hassell's wayward Prince Hal is a little too close to Hugh Laurie's Prince George in Blackadder 3, but the gravity he assumes by the end of Part I, in the run-up to the battle at Shrewsbury, consequently marks the necessary contrast well. The contrast between Harry and Hotspur is however a little over-emphasised in Trevor White's rather shouty Northern Lord Percy, but it leads to a powerful confrontation when the two men finally meet on the battlefield.

The staging of the battle scene at Shrewsbury is impressively choreographed for impact, figures running on and across the stage, creating a sense of chaos where random incidents and moments of significance take equal billing with the question of it being honourable. Elsewhere the tone adopted fits the scene and highlights the contrasts, the Boar's Head tavern and Shallow's estate bathed in golden hues, the plotting and rebellion all taking place in cold, dark, scenes with cool colours. As ever at the RSC, the stage is well-used, props kept to a minimum not only to allow free movement and quick scene changes, but principally to give due attention to the characters and the text. This is where the real character of the work lies, and in the case of Henry IV Parts I and II, it's not only the main characters that are important, but also the likes of Master Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies getting another plum comedy scene after Richard II), Mistress Quickly (a superb Paola Dionisotti), Pistol (a suitably bonkers Antony Byrne, though Pistol's finest moments are yet to come in Henry V), and in the fiery, foul-mouthed but mercurial Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne switching between resisters dynamically). Discretion is perhaps the watchword then also for Greg Doran's direction, and a valiant RSC production of Henry IV is the result.

The RSC's 2014 Henry IV, Parts I & II is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The two parts are released separately, but are also available in a box set. Both Blu-ray discs are BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcasts is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BDs are all-region compatible. The box set also includes, initially at least, a double-sided poster for the two performances.

Opus Arte specialises in DVDs and Blu-rays of live productions of ballet, opera and drama. As with the previous release of Richard II, the first of the RSCs productions to be filmed live and released on DVD and BD, the quality of the High Definition transfer is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release, the HD transfer handling the theatre conditions with the varying lighting conditions well. The cold blue scenes are crisp and clear, and the detail extends to the golden hues of the taverns and English countryside. If the latter appears a little warm and reddish, it must be remembered that this is theatrical lighting and not the naturalistic colouration you would see on a film transfer. There are no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.

Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. The actors don't appear to wear radio mics, as you might find on other live theatre recordings, particularly of opera. There are no microphones visible around the stage either, so even those are discreetly placed. I didn't find the sound quite as clear or as balanced however as on the previous Richard II BD release. The LPCM stereo mix in particular is rather echoing and low. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 is a little more centrally focussed and clear, although still a little low in volume. I didn't have any problem however following the dialogue. The LFE channel fairly rumbles in the surround mix, and is most evident in the music and drumming sequences. The music incidentally, composed for the production by Paul Englishby, is terrific and contributes greatly to the tone and content of the performances.

Subtitles are in English, French and German. The font is white, bold and clear to read. The English subtitles have the full spoken text of the two plays.

There is a varied and informative collection of extra features. Both discs have a full-length Director Commentary by Gregory Doran with input from the assistant director. Also on both discs is a brief Introducing the Play feature to set the scene, and a pre-production Trailer. Meet the Cast is the same on both discs, a few of the actors talking about the characters they play, and there are also Cast Galleries for both plays. Historical and geographical aspects of the work are covered in The World of Henry IV (Part I) and The Geography of the Play (Part II); 'The hour is come' looks at the rehearsals for the fight between Hal and Hotspur (Part I); the production design is covered in 'Designing the world of the play' and 'Designing Falstaff' (Part II), and there is an Interview with Antony Sher (Part II), where he talks about taking on a role that he never thought he would be suited for.
Greg Doran's direction of Henry IV, Parts I and II manages to bring out the distinct qualities and strengths of these two plays, but he also manages to maintain a consistency of approach to the history plays that fits in well with the RSC's earlier production of Richard II last year. The complex political plots, allegiances, revolts and betrayals mean that Henry IV, Part I and II are not the easiest Shakespeare plays to work with or follow, but they continue to reveal new depths, not least in the rich characterisation and wide scope of Shakespeare's historical outlook. By the time we get to the RSC's continuation of the succession of the English crown in Henry V, I imagine that this series will undoubtedly bring even more new insights to the history plays. Even on its own however, this is another welcome release of two fine Shakespeare productions at the RSC.

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Greg Doran's direction of Henry IV, Parts I and II manages to bring out the distinct qualities and strengths of these two plays, but he also manages to maintain a consistency of approach to the history plays that fits in well with the RSC's earlier production of Richard II last year. Available on a superb quality 2-disc Blu-ray set, this is another welcome release of two fine Shakespeare productions at the RSC.


out of 10

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