Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Presented by the Royal National Theatre at the Olivier Theatre, London. April 15-August 31, 2005. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Designed by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Neil Austin. Music/Soundscore by Max Ringham, Ben Ringham, and Andrew Rutland. Fights by Terry King. Sound by Paul Groothuis. Company voice work by Patsy Rodenburg. With David Bradley (Henry IV), Matthew MacFadyen (Prince Hal), Michael Gambon (Falstaff), David Harewood (Hotspur), Samuel Roukin (Lancaster), Thomas Arnold (Gloucester), Susan Brown (Mistress Quickly), Naomi Frederick (Lady Percy), Eve Myles (Lady Mortimer, Doll Tearsheet), Alistair Petrie (Mortimer, Pistol), John Wood (Justice Shallow), Rupert Ward-Lewis (Clarence), Robert Blythe (Glendower), Elliot Levy (Westmorland), Jeffery Kissoon (Northumberland), and others.

Pointedly advertised as commentaries on not only the historic concerns contained within the plays themselves, but also on contemporary political issues, Nicholas Hytner's Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 opened, with less than subtle timing, just ahead of the summer British elections. The productions did in fact explore the definitions of kingship (rightful or otherwise) and the politics of power, placing emphasis on the politically charged dramatic concerns already in the texts. But rather than making an extraneous political message somehow bleed into Shakespeare's verse, the productions focused on the very historicity of the plays, illustrating the vicious circularity that often characterizes the past while simultaneously drawing attention to fact that Shakespeare's texts were in no way supported by actual history itself. This was largely attempted through the use of visual epilogues from Holinshed's Chronicles before each show.

The chosen quotations, Richard giving his cousin Henry the crown for Part One, and the prince going to prison for striking the Chief Justice for Part Two were, as the program notes pointed out, examples of the kind of liberties that Shakespeare often took in his history plays. This, the notes explained, showed that Shakespeare's interest lay more in the historic figures themselves rather than precise historic fact. Instead of being a dramatic example of subjective historiography, the productions emphasized the human element, the depth and shallowness of the individuals forever caught up in that power struggle, the men who made that history, subjective or otherwise.

The productions were set in a medieval world, complete with pewter-colored chain mail and royal standards. A spare central set consisting of a few barren and stumpy trees, a raked staged reminiscent of a castle's wooden drawbridge, and a water pump at stage right was the main setting of the plays. Three large screens functioned as backdrops with minimal photograph-like images of stone walls or grey clouds. Simple furniture and drops were added for the indoor scenes, such as the tavern or the castle. The lighting created a dim and chilly atmosphere, a kind of oppression that was heightened by the sounds of thunder and beating drums filling the Olivier before the shows began.

David Bradley's Henry entered onto a battlefield littered with bodies. Henry was the prime example of the human-in-history element that the production boasted of, a tortured king whose stolen crown sat "troublesome" on his head. The heavy gold crown was a dominant image throughout the productions, symbolizing the anxiety and guilt that came with Henry's role as king. Its weight was what aged him and wore him down. He took it off in solitary moments, quickly putting it back on when anyone entered the room. The guilt was inherently tied up in Henry's conflict with an angry and punishing God whom he regarded with contempt tempered by despair. As he surveyed the aftermath of the recent civil war, his monologue shifted into a verbal fist-shaking at the heavens, a threat that war "no more shall cut its master." The wails of mourning women served as an eerie counterpoint to this opening speech, and Henry seemed to believe that the war was a direct result of his own sins. …