A head of state trying to focus on military action in the Middle East while distracted by discontent in Scotland. Disillusionment with Westminster in Northumberland, where the local powers-that-be demand more autonomy. A rogue prince, whose drunken exploits are the talk of the town and bring down occasional embarrassment on the royal family.
That’s neither a run-down of the week’s headlines nor the premise of a new BBC political satire, but the situation as this play opens.
Flippancy and lazily drawn historical parallels aside, it makes for an interesting context to watch one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing pieces.
As the play opens, the rebels have just suffered a crushing defeat at Shrewsbury. Their well-liked figurehead, Harry Hotspur, has been slain in single combat with the young Prince Hal and the rebels’ future looks precarious.
The Duke of Northumberland’s initial decision to keep on fighting launches the tale of power, political intrigue, friendship and betrayal that follows.
It’s a play, as many note, of highs and lows.
One minute we’re in the court of Henry IV, listening as advisors and princes scrabble for position or plot. The next we’re in a bawdy tavern, complete with drink, mad army captains, prostitutes and all the other seedy, underhand elements that a good medieval drinking hole requires.
It could make the plot feel a bit disjointed but director Gregory Doran manages superbly on a simple-but-stylish set which serves as palace and everywhere else.
The supporting cast do a brilliant job, playing the mad, the bad and the downright sneaky. Paola Dionisotti’s no nonsense landlady, Mistress Quickly, holds together energetic local tavern scenes with gusto.
Yet this is Falstaff’s show. It’s his story that connects the happenings at court with the misadventures in dank public houses and Antony Sher delivers an engaging performance.
We are left wondering whether to like him, pity him or hate him – a testament to Shakespeare’s writing and Sher’s acting.