Yet in the tavern scenes and, in Part 2, the country scenes with Justice Shallow and Silence that involve conscription of men for war, the life of the common man is portrayed, more closely reflecting Shakespeare’s own time. From the king down to the lowest conscriptee, the plays provide a broad view of issues that touched Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects.
As Henry IV, Part 1 opens, the king (Jasper Britton) announces plans for a crusade to Jerusalem to retake the city from the Saracens—something he promised in his last speech in Richard II, the chronological predecessor (and also part of the RSC’s visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Quickly, however, Henry is advised of rebels gathering against him: the Earl of Northumberland (Sean Chapman), a former ally in deposing Richard II; his brother, the Earl of Worcester (Antony Byrne); Northumberland’s son, and Lady Percy’s brother, Lord Mortimer (Robert Gilbert). Chief among them, though, is Matthew Needham’s stunningly good Hotspur, a fierce, intemperate warrior whose skill at arms is set against the dissipated life of Prince Hal (Alex Hassell). The trip to the Holy Land must be postponed.
Falstaff, the surrogate father to Hal, is embodied by Antony Sher, a great actor who has nevertheless seldom tackled comedy. Anyone who has seen him in classical roles (Massinger’s The Roman Actor, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Marston’s The Malcontent) knows he is a master of the language and a powerful stage presence. As Falstaff, though, something is not quite right. Sher growls a lot to sound dissipated and lumbers around to seem overweight. He can nail the wit, but one has the impression of someone giving a grand performance (and Falstaff is an actor at heart) but not completely inhabiting the character. He’s great fun to watch, but his roistering as Falstaff doesn’t feel natural. Yet there are splendid moments: when he’s trying to connect with his cronies in the darkness on Gad’s Hill to rob some pilgrims, he comes on, stepping slowly and whispering loudly, “Poins? Poins?” to find his compatriot.