Richard Eyre adapted and directed these two parts of Henry IV, which followed on from the brilliant Richard II. In it we now follow Henry Bolingbroke’s battles with Northumberland, and the life of his young son, Hal, the future Henry V, and his escapades with Sir John Falstaff. The whole point of this series (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V) is that these history plays follow on from each other and have many of the same characters. It is confusing then, that this play set just ten years after Richard II, should have all new actors playing the same characters. Henry IV was 33 when he became King and just 46 when he died. In Richard II he was played by the 34 year old Rory Kinnear, and then in Henry IV by the 66 year old Jeremy Irons. Both brilliant actors, but couldn’t they have found a 40-somthing to play both roles? Similarly, David Morrissey as Northumberland in Richard II was replaced by Alun Armstrong. If they had been played by the same person, it would have removed much of the confusion in this adaptation of Henry IV about who everyone was. They’re using Tom Hiddleston to play the young Prince Hal and Henry V, so why not with the others?
Tom Hiddleston, last seen as Loki in the Avengers, certainly revelled in this role. He could smile a lot and look happy, and mock others. He could bounce around with his curly mop of blonde hair. And then at the end he could be serious, grave and ‘majestic’. As much as the title is ‘Henry IV’, the play and its parts are really about Hal and also Falstaff – played by Simon Russell Beale. Prince Hal spends most of his time hanging out in an inn run by Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters), with Falstaff, Poins, and Doll (Maxine Peake). His father despairs about the company he keeps, but Hal is purposefully spending time with these ruffians so that he can learn about them and cast them aside when he becomes King. It’s a bit confusing as I thought part of the reasoning behind spending time with these people was for the future King to learn more about his subjects and be more sympathetic to their lives – isn’t this something we wish David Cameron did – but he actually appears to be mocking them and trying to see how low, Falstaff in particular, will go. I know Falstaff is one of those great Shakespeare characters, and Simon Russell Beale is one of those great British theatre actors, but for me the Falstaff scenes were rather tedious, and not as funny as I think they were intended. It was good to see David Bamber (Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Chalk) as Justic Swallow, and Reece Shearsmith as Davy. In fact, lots of well-known actors popped up in this as ever with these adaptations – Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By) as the Lord Chief Justice, Iain Glen (Mormont!) as Cousin Warwick, Harry Lloyd (Viserys) turned up, Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey) as Percy’s wife, and many other familiar faces.
During the play, Henry IV is involved in a civil war or at least a Northern Rebellion led by Percy, the son of Northumberland – once close friend and advisor of the King. At the end of Part I, Percy is killed by young Hal; and in the second part the rebellion is squashed after Hal’s younger brother, John, deceives the rebels by pretending to broker peace and then arresting and slaying them all. Meanwhile Henry IV (Irons) hangs around in his castle, despairing about his kingdom (fully aware of the way in which he took the crown from Richard), worried about his heir, and progressively getting iller until he dies towards the end of Part II. The colour palette for these plays, unlike Richard II, is all grey, dark and full of cold stones.
So I found Henry IV quite disappointing after Richard II. It was very difficult to follow, each part felt very long, and then there wasn’t really much plot. There was the rebellion and succession, but mainly it was all about Falstaff – about the ways in which he always stretched the truth, the ways in which he overinflated his own ego, the ways in which his downfall was necessary and expected at the end. I hadn’t seen Henry IV before, but I have seen Henry V and for that I am going to watch the last part because I fully expect a good rousing play to end this series – ‘Once More Unto This Breach’ and all that – and there won’t be any bloody Falstaff in it.