Henry IV part 1 has the honour of being the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage. It was my O-level set text (showing my age) and we trooped down to 'that London' from rural East Midlands to see it. The only thing I can remember is that the period of the costumes kept changing which I found confusing as, from up in the gods, dress was the main way I was keeping tabs on who was who.
No such confusion in the RSC's production. The attire of the cheeky, charming and good-hearted Prince Hal (a rather easy on the eye Alex Hassell) perfectly mirrors his journey as a character. Beginning in just underwear, having enjoyed the pleasures of the night, before dressing in casual attire to hang out with the lads before moving on to battle-ready and responsible heir apparent.
And, as gracious and well-intentioned as Prince Hal is then Antony Sher's corpulent Falstaff is comically roguish. It is his picture on the poster, almost deservedly so, although Hassell does a pretty good job of making his presence felt and it is the ensemble scenes which really do steal the show.
And it did here a couple of times, not helped by a Hotspur (Trevor White) who was so fiery-tempered and shouty he became a little annoying. I almost sensed a desire by the audience to applaud when he finally met his end, or maybe that was just me.
It is something that does start to resolves itself as the two threads come together. Prince Hal could, perhaps, be a little less hesitant in battle to make his defeat of the great fighter Hotspur more believable.
Ultimately this is Prince Hal and Falstaff's play, the Henry of the title almost superfluous with the deposed and murdered Richard II sometimes having a greater and more influential presence. It works in setting down the roots of someone who goes on to become a great King; a young prince who is learning astute politics and leadership from his father and yet who also feels at ease and can converse with those living outside the court.
As history plays go Henry IV part 1 it is probably the most fun and this is fun production the rocks along at a great pace and left me eager to see part 2. That experience will have to wait until the RSC decamps to London for the winter. And if Alex Hassell doesn't go on to play Henry V, which I'd be surprised not to see included in next year's RSC season, then Greg Doran needs a firm shake.
Henry IV part 1 runs in rep at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 6 September before touring the UK and finishing for a two month stint at the Barbican on 29 November.
As quite a few of the cast were in Richard II, I could have cheated but where is the fun in that so I turned my attention to the lovely Alex Hassell. He appeared in Factory Theatre's Hamlet (he also co-founded Factory Theatre) during which there were various one off cameo appearances by an impressive list of actors. One of those cameo appearances was James McAvoy who we know did that photo shoot with Mr W (google it).