Falstaff bounces back

Henry IV Part One/Part Two, Theatre Royal Bath, 3 August 2011

Part One, 2.30pm

With memories of the Globe’s 2010 Henry IVs still fresh, thanks to a recent screening of Part One at a local cinema, the idea of seeing these plays indoors behind a proscenium arch with an all-seated audience was a tantalising prospect.

Exactly how different would this Peter Hall production feel to the widely acclaimed Globe version with Roger Allam as Falstaff?

The answer was: very different. The darkness and formality of the Theatre Royal Bath space produced a more meditative atmosphere compared with the breezy exuberance of the Globe.

The set consisted of dark walls with a retractable tower stairway stage right that was brought forward for the Eastcheap scenes.

King Henry’s silhouetted figure stood in a doorway and slowly crowned himself. The production’s first image was an ominous reminder of the uneasy weight of the crown, whose disputed ownership drove the main plot.

The King’s uniform, like that of the other nobles gathered around him for the first scene, was Victorian era: this had a crucial impact on the feel of the production.

Locating the action within a vague Victorian setting meant that the play now appeared to be dramatising the fate of a country at the core of a global empire, not that of England in the fifteenth century.

The challenge to the King’s rule and his own fretting over Hal’s suitability to succeed him thereby became matters of increased significance, games for much higher stakes.

The darkness of the uniforms worn by the King and his followers, combined with the static formality of the blocking, all contributed to a sense of a realm besieged by troubles.

The first scene showed us the King’s three-fold problem: rebellion on the border with Wales, dissension from his allies in Northumbria and dissatisfaction with his own son and heir.

Some lightness came in the 1.2. Hal woke a sleeping Falstaff by pouring drink on him, but the fat knight could only raise himself into a sitting position, still covered with a sheet, until Hal finally uncovered him like a statue.

Hal looked too old to be a convincing drifter. He seemed ripe for a serious life but was continuing to put it off.

Falstaff had a huge gut. He looked quite unwell and could only sit as he was tired. This raised a real concern that he might not make it to the interval of Part One, let alone to the end of Part Two. Despite his physical condition and age he had quite an impish laugh revealing inner playfulness.

Poins tried to persuade Hal to go robbing. He almost agreed and put his hand out to shake on it, but at last moment he had scruples and, placing his hand on the side of his head, raised an objection.

Hal finally concurred and completed his original gesture by extending his hand without hesitation or drawing it back to shake the hand of Poins.

Hal delivered his spotlit soliloquy to the audience explaining his strategy to turn away from his lowlife companions and thereby appear more virtuous once king.

Contrast

The King’s confrontation with Hotspur (1.3) provided a contrast to the first two static scenes. Hotspur was very animated and moved swiftly and boldly around the stage, eventually looking offstage at the King who had departed.

This dissimilarity was stark and deliberate. After two scenes with no unnecessary movements, this motion, when it came, looked even more disruptive.

The whole of 2.1 (set at the inn yard near Rochester) was cut. The play continued straight into 2.2. Falstaff called out for Poins and Hal in the darkness of Gad’s Hill. A door opened at the rear of the set to show a tree indicating the rural setting.

Falstaff failed in his attempt at whistling and was surprised by the bird calls made by his companions.

The two robberies were fairly routine and the money-laden travellers were rounded up in a rope.

Hotspur entered with letter (2.3). Lady Percy entreated with him but he was confident in himself and slightly patronising towards his little lady. He finished by picking her up, carrying her and kissing her to convince his wife of his affection.

Scene 2.4 began with Hal describing his credit with the Eastcheap apprentices to Poins. The Francis sequence was cut. So instead of the extended joke at the expense of the drawer and his cry of “Anon, anon” Hal went straight into his mocking impression of Hotspur, complete with a bawdy mime when talking about his roan horse. Bardolph was a gangling Victorian villain with red blotches.

The Eastcheap inn had a fire at the back. Falstaff and his party entered down the stairs moaning about their recent escapade. The re-enactment of the Gad’s Hill robbery and Falstaff’s increasingly extravagant exaggerations of the number of men he had fought were a reliable source of comedy.

Falstaff said that if he was lying people should “Call me horse” at which point Poins snorted like one. Hal stood to one side and was sarcastic in his attitude towards Jack. This was the first sign of more serious developments to come.

Mistress Quickly was dressed in Victorian costume with a bustle at the back of her dress and had a big cleavage.

Cushion

For the play extempore Falstaff sat on a chair with a cushion on his head and a dagger held in his right hand. He produced a good imitation of King Henry’s serious, sonorous tones. When he and Hal swapped places, Falstaff mocked Hal’s lightness and frivolity.

But from around line 432 onwards, Hal became increasingly disdainful of Falstaff. He addressed his remarks to the assembled company and enlisted the others to agree with his mockery. Hal seemed to revel in it a little too much.

The successive “that”s introducing the descriptions of Falstaff were punctuated like gags in Victorian music hall, and the others responded like an audience.

What was supposed to be good-humoured and playful took on a tinge of bitterness and genuine animosity. By the end Falstaff looked crestfallen. He had realised that Hal did not genuinely respect him.

Falstaff’s “Whom means your grace?” was not a playful continuation of the sport, but a genuine expression of incredulity at the content and tenor of Hal’s taunts. Falstaff knelt by Hal’s side asking not to be banished. By this time Hal had realised that Falstaff had got the message. The prince was shaking with guilt at having let his guard slip to reveal his true feelings.

Normally “I do; I will” is the key line at which Falstaff realises Hal’s intentions. But in this production he gained this insight from the preceding speech. The “I do; I will” was said nervously, with Hal reverting to an embarrassed imitation of the King.

The atmosphere was still tense as Falstaff hid from the Sheriff. Mistress Quickly covered Falstaff’s coughing with an expectoration of her own.

The arras was drawn back and Falstaff was discovered asleep. His pocket was picked and his inn bill joked over.

At the end of the scene, leading immediately into the interval, Hal went to look at Falstaff asleep and then briskly pulled the arras back to cover him as the lights dimmed. This symbolic closing of the curtains on him expressed Hal’s determination to reject Falstaff. It also meant that Hal had not been affected by any guilt raised when he had let his true feelings slip.

Interval

The second half (3.1) began with a meeting of the Welsh contingent round a large table. Standing candelabra provided dim light in formal surroundings in which serious matters of state were being discussed.

In the middle of the dispute over land boundaries, Hotspur said he would react badly to “Nothing so much as mincing poetry”.

He spoke the verse line in an accentuated, sing-song iambic pentameter rhythm, rather like someone teaching the form. In performance it sounded like poetry being invented on the spot and inserted into unpoetic speech, but iambic verse underlay the entire passage.

In effect, he uttered a verse (poetry) line disdaining poetry, thereby speaking against the mode of writing that his dramatist creator had assigned to him.

This was ironic coming from Peter Hall, who is famous for his adherence to verse speaking.

When the wives entered, it suddenly dawned on me that the old balding bloke on stage was actually Mortimer and he was married to the young Lady Mortimer. This looked quite wrong and added to the perverseness of his captive situation.

Glendower hinted at his reservations about this age difference in his treatment of Mortimer. Glendower explained to Mortimer that his wife wanted him to join her on the rushes. Mortimer was keen to go over, but Glendower gently pulled him back, stringing out a series of explanations preceded by “And” as if unhappy about Mortimer’s fervour to be close to her.

The scene ended with a hug of female solidarity between Lady Mortimer and Lady Percy, but this served more to cover extensive scene changes than fulfil any dramatic purpose.

In 3.2 the conversation between the King and Hal saw the King’s clipped tones dispute with Hal’s nervous apologies. The “God pardon thee!” was neither blurted nor aggressive, but formed a continuous element of the utterance. The atmosphere of the scene was even with no major shifts in mood.

The dark, formal uniforms together with the King’s ominous forebodings and the static blocking, all contributed to the tone of the scene.

The King was very dismissive of Blount’s five-day old news about the meeting of the rebels at Shrewsbury. Henry had already planned to assemble forces at Bridgnorth.

Angular

The action returned to Eastcheap for 3.3. Bardolph sat on the ground looking rough, with the thinness of his limbs making him appear angular. By contrast the sight of Falstaff commenting on how he was wasting away, with his gross, fat belly protruding like the prow of a ship towards the audience was very funny.

Falstaff did a chicken impression to accompany his “Dame Partlett” greeting to Mistress Quickly. This was one of production’s few condescending explanations of obscure terms.

Hal entered with Peto but did not play his truncheon like a pipe as per the stage directions.

The basic bawdy humour of Quickly’s “Any man knows where to have me” provided some reliable laughs.

The ease and fluidity of this scene stood in marked contrast to the formality of previous one.

Act four began with Hotspur in a rural setting with trees upstage. He scorned doubts about the impending battle despite it being obvious that the falling away of his allies was a crucial setback. We began to realise that for all his confidence, Hotspur had none of the caution required to be a good tactician.

Falstaff marched his troops on from stage right. The dozy men propped themselves half-asleep against a pillar while Falstaff continued centre stage. He dispatched Bardolph to fetch more sack and spoke of his shame at his troops, pointing at them over his shoulder.

Hal and Westmoreland and also remarked about the soldiers. As they were being portrayed in comic light, Falstaff’s dark comments about their raggedness and expendability occupied the same comic terrain.

Hotspur’s discussions with the others (4.3) were interrupted by the arrival of Blount who came from the King to hear the rebels’ grievances. Hotspur launched into an angry defence of their uprising and arranged for a parlay.

The Archbishop, who was doubled by the same actor as Bardolph, held his forces back from Shrewsbury (4.4).

The King and his party walked out of centre doors at the start of act five. Worcester was brought to them under a truce. The King offered the rebels a pardon if they withdrew and Hal challenged Hotspur to single combat. Worcester was sent back with the King’s offer of a pardon.

Falstaff was left behind to deliver his “honour” soliloquy.

The King’s offer of a pardon (5.2) was kept from Hotspur, who prepared for battle and sent his challenge back via Westmoreland.

Battle

The King and his party appeared out of the centre doors (5.3) and strode downstage. The King made a downward motion with his drawn sword that set off the battle.

Douglas killed Blount thinking him to be the King, but Hotspur put him straight on that score. Falstaff wandered through the pell-mell of excursions and waving flags. Hal asked Falstaff for his sword. Jack offered his pistol but handed over a hip flask instead, which Hal threw on the ground.

Falstaff contemplated the dead Blount and completed his further thoughts on honour by crying “Give me life!”

Douglas did battle with the King and forced him to ground (5.4), Hal arrived and fought Douglas off. After the King left, Hotspur found Hal and they fought for a long time. They ended up struggling on ground. Hal drove his blade into Hotspur and both collapsed on the ground.

Falstaff shouted encouragement from upstage and was then attacked by Douglas and appeared to be slain.

Hotspur delivered his dying speech, and Hal knelt out of breath a short distance away. He held his sword aloft with the point trained downwards on Hotspur in case he lashed out. He watched Hotspur die and completed his final line saying that he was food “… for worms”.

Hal moved upstage and found Falstaff on the ground. He crouched over him and kissed what he took to be Falstaff’s dead body. It was interesting to speculate whether this show of affection was an expression of the guilt he felt, knowing that Falstaff had been aware of Hal’s true opinion of him.

Left alone onstage, Falstaff echoed Hal’s departing words and rose up to great audience relief. The humour of this was nicely set off by his subsequent scheming to claim Hotspur’s death as his own work.

Worcester and Vernon were sent to their deaths (5.5). The King was quietly satisfied with his victory and the army was dispatched onwards to deal with the other rebels.

Part Two, 7.30pm

The silhouette of Rumour appeared upstage in Victorian costume at the start of Part Two before descending right to the edge of the stalls to deliver the prologue. He remained onstage knocking on the pillar to create the sound of Lord Bardolph’s battering at the door.

Rumour stayed for a while, to check that the false stories of the King’s defeat were being spread as he intended. Once Lord Bardolph began his inaccurate report, Rumour slinked away satisfied.

Northumberland’s reaction when Morton finally confirmed the death of his son Hotspur was so powerful that he bent over double with the pain of his loss.

Falstaff, by contrast, cut a jolly figure at the start of 1.2. Dressed for a Sunday walk, he seemed blissfully unconcerned about the state of his water. He displayed relentless good humour and wit in seeing off both the Lord Chief Justice and his Servant.

His first scene in Part Two re-established him in our minds as an indomitable force of nature, none more so when he set himself down, despite all evidence to the contrary, in the scroll of youth.

The audience lapped this up like cream, partly because of the quality of Desmond Barrit’s performance, and also partly because many of them were still digesting life-affirming early dinners.

Falstaff signed off with a complaint about his gout and the ripple of applause that bade him farewell from the scene spilt over into the staid, formal entrance of the Archbishop at the start of the next scene (1.3).

The rebels again foolishly assumed that their reduced numbers would be able to overcome the King’s forces, which they thought would be divided in three and therefore weak.

This fairly dry expository scene was followed by a glorious return to Eastcheap (2.1) with Mistress Quickly in fine form arranging for Falstaff to be arrested. For some reason Quickly held her nose when referring to his visits to “Pie Corner”.

A lewd joke that had previously passed me by suddenly jumped out from the performance. Talking of her action against Falstaff, Quickly said: “and my case so openly known to the world”. The shades of meaning covered by “case” and “known” revealed a second level of meaning below the obvious.

Clodpoll

This scene also highlighted the doubling by actor Michael Mears of the roles of the Archbishop and Bardolph. Falstaff’s companion was dirty, shifty, angular and his face was a blaze of red eruptions. The change from cleric to clodpoll was rapid and seamless.

Fang and Snare used Falstaff’s walking stick to pinion his arms behind his back, but the entrance of the Lord Chief Justice caused them to move away leaving Falstaff to flounder with his arms still locked in position.

Quickly’s confusion of “sum” with “some” causing her to explain “it is for all I have” neatly led us into her wonderful, extended anecdote about the precise circumstances of Falstaff’s promise to marry her.

The Chief Justice was unimpressed by Falstaff’s attempt to smear Quickly and ordered him to make amends. But left alone with the Hostess, he soon wormed his way back into her affections, and with a stroke of her face and a few sweet words she was offering to lend him even more money.

Hal was in a reflective mood (2.2) telling Poins that any grief he expressed for his sick father would be taken as hypocrisy. His mood brightened on receiving Falstaff’s letter, hatching a plot with Poins to disguise themselves as drawers and spy on him.

The Northumberland family struck a sad note with their mourning over the death of Hotspur. The doubling of Quickly and Lady Northumberland by Lizzy McInnerny was effective in this regard because she was easily recognisable as the actress behind the more prominent Hostess character; so to see her in another role expressing sorrow made that mourning all the more striking.

But this was basically the widow of Hotspur, Lady Percy’s scene. Her long speech beseeching her father-in-law not to join the rebels was powerful, with its dour tone enhanced by the dark stage and costumes.

The first twenty or so lines of 2.4 were cut so that the scene began with the entry of Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. They walked down the steps of the stage tower with Doll looking worse for wear and intermittently hiccoughing “hem”.

Falstaff wandered in carrying his chamber pot and gave it to Bardolph to empty. Doll, supported by Quickly, lent forward ready to hurl, revealing the bleeding heart tattoo on her left breast. She responded to Jack’s taunts by swearing at him and the pair were soon facing each other sat at adjacent tables.

Quickly counselled Doll that she was the weaker vessel and when Doll picked up the phrase in reply, she pointed at Quickly’s purse as an example of one. Doll moved from her table to sit with Jack at his.

Palpitations

The news of Pistol’s arrival made Quickly tremble. She demonstrated the truth of this to Jack by clasping his hand to her chest so that he could feel her palpitations.

Pistol directed his attention first on Quickly, pointing two outstretched fingers at her to represent his “two bullets”, and then on Doll, lasciviously sticking his tongue between the V of two other fingers. Despite protesting that she was meat for her master Falstaff, Pistol molested her, running his hand up her skirt before sniffing at his fingers. Doll drew her dagger and threw Pistol to the ground to sit astride him. Her language was aggressive, but the riding motion of her body was suggestive.

Doll cut off one of Pistol’s epaulettes mocking his promotion to Captain. Pistol shifted his attentions back to Quickly, sitting on her lap, lewdly questioning “And are etceteras nothings?” Much of Pistol’s more obscure rhetoric was cut.

Pistol was eventually ejected after a drunk fight with Falstaff. His women showed their appreciation for his efforts: Quickly massaged his groin while Doll kneeled in front of his chair appearing to apply her own attentions to that part of his anatomy.

The tender moment between Doll and Falstaff was moving and saw the old man in a reflective, uncharacteristically melancholic mood that would soon dovetail into his reactions towards the disguised Hal, who together with Poins, was now lurking in the background.

Doll did not catch sight of the pair and so her questions to Jack about the characters of Hal and Poins were accidental rather than engineered.

When Hal finally revealed himself, Doll and Quickly bowed obsequiously and continuously to him. Doll remained bowed until Hal took her hand, and describing her as an “honest, virtuous, civil gentlewoman”, guided her back to vertical.

This was all in the context of Hal jokingly castigating Falstaff for his unflattering descriptions of him. The Prince termed this “wilful abuse”.

On hearing this phrase, Falstaff’s countenance fell again, much as it had done when hearing Hal’s mocking of him in the Eastcheap scene in Part One.

Like an old wound being reopened by a fresh blow, Jack realised that Hal’s poor opinion of him had endured. This new episode returned Falstaff to the same lonely, disconsolate place he had found himself before. More hard evidence, for sure, that Hal was not a sworn bosom buddy Falstaff could rely on.

The King’s “uneasy lies the head” speech in 3.1 saw David Yelland once again hold the audience rapt with wonder as he stood and delivered the sublime poetry of the sequence.

The scene provided another slab of pitch-perfect versifying with the King’s ruminations on “the book of fate”. The first half of the performance ended on this sad note of the King’s melancholic reflections on the condition of his kingdom.

Interval

The second half began on a jollier note at the Gloucestershire residence of Justice Shallow. Shallow and Silence sat together on a bench and reminisced before Falstaff arrived to look at potential recruits.

The most notable of these was Wart, a toothless imbecile.

Shallow sat with Falstaff and held his hand warmly talking about “the days that we have seen”. But after the most able men had bought themselves out of military service, Falstaff chose the weakest, including Wart. When Wart was handed a musket, he put it over his shoulder so that it took his hat from his head. The hat then hung decoratively from the musket end. Shallow protested that Wart was not fit to carry the weapon and grabbed it charging round aggressively causing the others to get out of his way.

Falstaff reminisced about Shallow, looking down at his own groin when describing how Shallow was labelled a mandrake. He pointed at himself when talking of the “young dace” that would serve as bait for Shallow’s “old pike”.

The first two scenes of act four saw the rebels confronted and then tricked by the King’s forces. The scroll of grievances that the Archbishop had handed to Westmoreland was summarily torn up once the rebels were taken into custody. The Archbishop was visibly furious at this betrayal.

The initial sequence of 4.3 in which Falstaff captures Colevile was cut so that the action continued with Falstaff merely referring to his prize. He conversed with Westmoreland and Lancaster but Colevile did not appear for questioning.

Falstaff delivered his paean to sack, which was entertaining but unnecessarily emended. All the references to “sherris” were altered to “sherry”. This sounded utterly wrong. His speech gains from the retention of the (to our modern ears) exotic terms “sherris” and “sherris sack” because Falstaff’s highly original philosophy analysing the relationship between drinking habits, character and behaviour is itself of the same exotic quality.

It sounds somehow preferable to hear of a mind being “manured, husbanded and tilled, with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris” than the same phrase ending in “sherry”, a word that evokes little more than dull middle-aged Christmas celebrations.

Bed

The King, who had displayed no real signs of frailty or illness so far in the performance, suddenly collapsed without warning towards the end of 4.4 and was placed in a bed wheeled out through the back of the set.

Hal did not see his father at first as he entered behind the head of the bed. His joviality soon evaporated as he contemplated the King’s condition, and thinking him dead, took the crown. On his return, finding the King still alive, he took off the crown and held it reverently before him. He looked sad as the King railed against him.

Having convinced his father of his sincere love, Hal sat on the bed next to him, holding and comforting him. Eventually both Hal and John were holding the King’s hand as he expired.

Scene 5.1 with the first appearance of Davy was cut, so that after the removal of the King’s deathbed from the stage, the play continued with the Lord Chief Justice and Warwick discussing the aftermath of the King’s demise.

As the bed withdrew a diagonal strip of the stage was lit along which the pair entered and discussed the Chief Justice’s presumed parlous condition.

King Henry V entered shortly after his brothers and seemed nervous about the “new and gorgeous garment” of his “majesty”. The Chief Justice’s remonstration with the King about the administration of justice was the more effective for him carrying a large mace of office that accentuated the power that he described.

Returning to Gloucestershire came as welcome relief after so long a time devoted to affairs of state in London. A picnic was spread on the ground, and with Shallow drunk and Silence singing, the atmosphere was very relaxed. Shallow grabbed Falstaff’s page by the legs and dragged him backwards a short distance. Red-nosed Bardolph became best friends with Davy promising that they would go drinking together in London some day.

Pistol’s news about the death of Henry IV and the accession of Henry V sent Falstaff and friends off on their trip to London.

As the stage was cleared of the Gloucestershire picnic, Doll and Quickly appeared downstage and were dragged off to prison by the Beadle. The cushion with which Doll was feigning pregnancy to avoid punishment was pulled out from under her clothes.

No rushes were strewn on the ground at the start of 5.5 but the second and third Grooms did appear to speak their lines about the imminent arrival of King Henry V.

Falstaff and his party assembled stage left and he was held back by a man using a large stick as a hand-held crowd barrier.

Train

The King entered through the doors in the back of the set in robes of state and with a long train carried behind him.

Falstaff broke out from his restraint and caught the King’s attention. But King Henry kept looking more or less straight ahead, turning his eyes towards Falstaff. This body language carried the clear implication that addressing himself fully to his erstwhile companion was now beneath his dignity.

The King told Falstaff to fall to his prayers, which he did immediately, not daring even to look the King in the eye.

However, once the King had formally rejected him and pronounced the banishment from his presence, Falstaff recovered completely, assuring his followers with the utmost degree of assurance that he would be sent for later.

The Chief Justice and his men came to take Falstaff’s band off, not to “the Fleet”, but simply to “jail”. This emendation to the text sounded odd, but did serve the useful purpose of explaining that the men were not being pressed into the navy.

Pistol flicked a final V-sign as he uttered his Latin motto. Falstaff was led away, turning back briefly as if meaning to say something, but then apparently forgetting what it was and continuing on.

Prince John seemed very confident when discussing the forthcoming war in France with the Chief Justice.

The final image of the production was King Henry V framed in the doorway at the back of the set raising his sword, mirroring the opening of Part One in which the King had crowned himself.

Conclusions

The great mystery of the final scene was the precise meaning of Falstaff’s self-assurance.

The production had gone to great lengths to show that Falstaff was well aware of Hal’s true opinion of him. He had heard the Prince’s mockery of him in Part One at Eastcheap and had been reminded of it again in Part Two after the Prince had observed him in disguise.

Why was Falstaff so effusively positive that he would be sent for in private when he had ample evidence that the Prince’s turn against him was genuine?

It could be that he was deluded, but there was nothing in the performance of the final scene to indicate false, unfounded confidence.

A more attractive alternative is an interpretation of this Falstaff in which he represented something beyond his character in the plays. His final confidence and contentment formed a wider statement about the spirit of Falstaff.

In a well-governed world Falstaff should never truly be defeated. And Peter Hall took the character beyond the narrative of the story to make that wish come true.

After very positive reviews, this production is ripe for a London transfer as it thoroughly deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

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