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Review: RSC's Henry IV Part I at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Antony Sher heads an excellent cast as Henry IV Part I begins a run of three RSC plays at Newcastle's Theatre Royal

****
RSC'S Henry IV Part One: Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff)
RSC'S Henry IV Part One: Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff)

This rumbustious history play opens with vivid snapshots of two contrasting worlds.

First there’s the world of the court, of Henry IV prostrating himself before the figure of Christ on the cross within a semi-circle of chanting priests.

Then there’s the world of Eastcheap where we find Prince Hal, son of Henry, tumbling in bed with a pair of floosies.

It’s high versus low, sombre and dutiful versus low and feckless.

But even as you’re feasting your eyes on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s famously splendid sets and absorbing the contrasting approaches to life, it’s the words that bring you up short.

Here is a court poised on the verge of a crusade to the Holy Land – “to chase these pagans in those holy fields” – when a sudden unwelcome distraction arises.

The Welsh and Scots are up in arms and fiery Harry Hotspur in Northumberland is giving cause for concern.

Here are the seeds of modern day conflicts sown by the English centuries ago and now, in the reaping, politicans gather for urgent Commons debates with lives at stake.

Greg Doran’s production is as clear as you could hope with all designed to serve a text which rings with so many timeless and universal truths.

Alex Hassell’s Hal is not wholly unlikeable but there’s something of the notorious Bullingdon Club (that Oxford gathering of reprobate posh boys) about his goading of Falstaff, his intellectually inferior drinking buddy.

Falstaff, the star of this particular show, survives through a lack of scruple – which is where, ultimately, he and Hal will part company.

Falstaff’s duty is only to himself although there are some touching scenes in the Eastcheap tavern presided over by Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) when, you can see, the couple have a bit of thing for each other.

There is much to enjoy, from the slightly whining, nasal delivery of Antony Sher’s Falstaff as he utters the shameless lines conferred on him by the greatest writer in English (it is here that discretion is deemed the better part of valour) to the contrasting bounciness of the two Harrys, Hal and Hotspur (Trevor White).

Amid all the larking about, a word, too, for Jasper Britton’s monarch, a spot-on portrayal of a man – king and father – with far too much on his plate.

Part I alternates with Part II, the sequel, until October 4

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