Henry IV Parts One and Two, The Globe, 15 May 2012
The story of Hal, Falstaff and King Henry was presented by theatre companies from Mexico and Argentina in their local versions of Spanish.
Timber walkways extended out into the yard either side of the Globe stage. A trap door at each end allowed actors to climb up onto them. The walkways also continued onto the stage in the form of moveable timber sections of varying heights and slopes.
The cast, dressed in approximations of period costume, assembled in a circle in the yard before climbing up a single narrow step onto the main stage.
King Henry (Marco Antonio Garcia) strode to the centre of the stage in his long, leaf-patterned coat. He was crowned but then immediately looked around with a troubled expression, prefiguring the uneasiness that the spiky lattice crown would bring him.
Prince Hal (Constantino Morán) was tall, lean with greying hair, which contrasted with the dark hair and beard of Falstaff (Roberto Soto), who sported a fat suit paunch to increase his rotundity.
This made for a strange combination when the apparently older Prince snuggled and rested his head on Falstaff’s gut for comfort when their friendship was being established.
A brief interlude in the cloud meant that Hal could look up at the sun to describe how he would soon be leaving his base companions behind and “breaking through the foul and ugly mists” to become a proper prince.
Both Hotspur (David Calderón) and Worcester (Enrique Arreola) had short hair at the sides but a long central quiff of hair, giving them a distinctive look. Hotspur did a chirrupy impression of the starling that he would have whisper “Mortimer, Mortimer…” in Henry’s ear.
The Gad’s Hill robbery scene got off to a great start. Falstaff made his way through the yard and leant his back against a groundling for support, before being helped on stage by another. He lay on his back and rocked to and fro to illustrate his rotundity.
Money bags jingling with coins were stolen by Falstaff and company after which the masked Hal and Poins robbed them. Falstaff and his companions returned in an attempt to retrieve the cash but were repulsed.
All the female roles in the play were performed by Gabriela Núñez, which was a demanding task. She played Mistress Quickly in sunglasses.
Falstaff’s exaggerated account of the robbery was very funny. Hal stood at the end of one walkway, while Falstaff on the other spun out a tale in which the number of men he had fought multiplied exponentially. But the two came together and sat close centre stage when Hal revealed that it was in fact himself and Poins who had robbed Falstaff.
As Hal beamed in triumph, the fat knight looked perplexed and wondered how to get out of this tight spot. Then his expression lit up as he hit upon the idea of saying that he had instinctively recognised the true prince.
The role playing game saw Hal sat quite regally at the end of a walkway with his legs apart when he delivered the fateful line “I do. I will.”
Some welcome comedy came when Falstaff fell asleep and his snoring sound was accentuated by a trombone. The Sheriff circled round Falstaff trying to look past his companions who matched the Sheriff’s every move in order to keep Falstaff concealed.
But a sour note was struck in the Welsh scene. Lady Mortimer’s Welsh was simply gibberish played for laughs. Her singing was tuneless howling. As she cradled Mortimer’s head in her lap, the poor man tried to turn away, but she kept wresting his head back to gaze at her. The others looked on dismissively.
This was in stark contrast to the usually respectful and touching way this sequence is treated in the UK.
Hal criticised Falstaff’s ragtag army and pointed at a groundling in order to demonstrate his point.
Having vowed to be a better son, Hal demonstrated his new-found sense of responsibility by drawing his sword to defend the King when Worcester said he was wrong to have deposed Richard.
The cold weather produced an unexpected bonus: when Falstaff said that honour was just air, his exhalation condensed into an illustrative cloud of fleeting vapour.
The Battle of Shrewsbury spilled down into the yard as the two armies set about each other with proper swords.
As Hotspur lay dying, Hal cut his opponent’s throat before he could complete his sentence, finishing it for him saying he was food for “…worms”. Usually Hal watches respectfully and only completes the phrase after Hotspur has expired without further assistance. Hal’s actions here made him crueller and more determined.
With the rebellion quelled and Hal having redeemed himself in his father’s eyes, Falstaff made a great point of gazing at Hal in admiration. The production succeeded in establishing a sincere bond between them.
When the cast took their bows and bade us farewell there was a profound sense of loss that we would saying a permanent goodbye to these versions of the characters. We would never see how this Hal and this Falstaff would fare in Part Two, particularly when the final rejection came.
This sense of loss was accentuated by the geniality of the pair and the entirely believable relationship established between them.
The second part of the story was told with a new cast of actors from Argentina. The main problem with changing teams halfway through was that in Part Two Hal and Falstaff only really interact in two scenes: when Hal and Poins pretend to be drawers in Eastcheap and the final rejection scene.
This meant that the Argentinean Hal and Falstaff never got to know each other and all their encounters were effectively as strangers. With new main characters, we never saw how this Hal and Falstaff had started off. This was a gnawing problem all the way through the production.
Part Two was also the weaker of the pair. There were few props and little music. The acting and characterisation was much coarser.
It began creatively enough with the figure of Rumour represented by a crowd of jabbering figures in blue overcoats. One of them wore a t-shirt with a Rolling Stones red tongue logo to represent Rumour’s many tongues.
The new Falstaff (Horacio Peña) was older with a shock of white wispy hair. His jacket and trousers were both in garish multicoloured striped patterns. He walked with an apparent limp, which turned out on greater scrutiny to be a permanent drunk stagger.
Hal (Lautaro Vilo) was now in a blazer and cravat, his hair and whole demeanour conservative and respectable. His companion Poins imitated Hal’s style and showed an unhealthy interest in Falstaff’s Page, who was a slight figure with a squeaky voice.
The other characters wore modern dress in a pastiche of UK clothing conventions. So many rolled up Adidas tracksuits were in evidence that it began to look like a sponsorship deal.
The Chief Justice and Messrs Shallow and Silence wore lawyerly black gowns and wigs topped with bowler hats. Mistress Quickly (Graciela Martinelli) had a pink fright wig, while Doll (Irina Alonso) was a fishnet-stockinged prostitute. Fang and Snare had regulation British police caps and hi-viz jackets.
The Eastcheap characters were cartoonish and coarse because the company treated them as stock types.
In the UK, however, the Henry IV plays are treated as an embodiment of a certain vision of England and Englishness to which audiences respond with affection. Falstaff is an iconic figure whose life-affirming spirit goes way beyond the merely grotesque.
This company’s treatment of Part Two was the antithesis of the standard UK approach.
There was also nothing subtle about the Eastcheap scene that saw Falstaff pawing at Doll. Often their relationship is shown as containing a certain tenderness, reflecting a genuine affection for the characters. But this was absent here.
King Henry’s (Horacio Acosta) “uneasy lies the head” speech was very effective. But his reflections on power and authority were affected by the general coarseness of the production, so that he came across as bitter rather than meditative.
The men presented to Falstaff for recruitment into the army were a collection of grotesques, including a camp tailor, a grimacing simpleton and a Bullcalf in a boxing helmet.
A genuinely funny laugh was earned by the Archbishop, who took to the battlefield in a camouflage pattern mitre.
Part Two’s Falstaff came close to redeeming himself when he delivered his magnificent paen to sherry. This was quite a reflective moment for a buffoon and he was required to tone down the permanent drunken stagger and behave like a three-dimensional character for once.
The scenes at the royal palace depicting the decline and death of King Henry saw the royal household in sober suits, which contrasted with the dazzling colours and patterns of Falstaff’s attire.
The King fell out of his wheelchair in a fit. He was then put back and whizzed around the stage at high speed before coming to a stop at the other side, his chair now representing his death bed in the Jerusalem chamber.
The scene between king and prince was marked by the king’s continued anger against his son but was wonderfully compelling.
After his father’s death the new King Henry V appeared in a grey suit and slicked down sensible hair.
After a brief interlude of Falstaff’s zaniness in Gloucestershire, he and his companions returned to London to greet the new king. His followers waved union flags as the procession entered.
Falstaff reacted to his rejection with a downcast expression, but a few moments later was very upbeat. He and his fellows were taken to prison by officers with rubber truncheons.
The comment about imminent war with France was followed by a final tableau. King Henry in his crown led a tight formation of soldiers in blue greatcoats. A drum played as they marched forward and then as the soldiers pointed finger guns in all directions, the drum strokes began to represent gunfire.
This tale of two Hals and two Falstaffs suffered from a lack of coherence between the two parts. The truly likeable pairing established in Part One was sorely missed in Part Two. The new Hal and Falstaff then had no opportunity to establish a genuine relationship.
It would have been fascinating to see how each company would have handled the part they did not get to perform.
The treatment of Falstaff in Part Two brought home just how far UK audiences regard that character as much more than a belligerent drunk.