Magazine article The Spectator

Falstaff Folly

Magazine article The Spectator

Falstaff Folly

Article excerpt

Back in 1966, Orson Welles took Shakespeare's greatest chronicle plays, the two parts of Henry IV plus a scene from Henry V, gutting and telescoping them into a great if flawed masterpiece, much like old Orson himself, which essentially kept all the Falstaff scenes and threw out virtually everything else.

Because the film of Chimes at Midnight had a great cast (Welles himself as the fat knight plus Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, Jeanne Moreau and Keith Baxter), it has now acquired `lost classic' status; it's the kind of patchwork, incomplete folly that Citizen Kane might himself have shot over a long weekend with a few starry friends at San Simeon, Marion Davies perhaps giving her Mistress Quickly.

Now, at Chichester, we have the first staging of Chimes at Midnight since Welles's death, with only Keith Baxter (Hal in the film, now his father Henry IV on stage) surviving from the original project. But we do also get Simon Callow, Welles's representative on earth and still midway through his definitive biography, as Falstaff, together with Sarah Badel as Mistress Quickly in a brisk, economic staging by that still most underrated of brilliant stage managers, Patrick Garland, who (as either producer or director, often both) has been responsible for almost all of the best of Chichester over the last quarter of a century.

Inevitably, the production has already fallen foul of many of my critical colleagues simply because Garland, Callow, Baxter (and I guess you could include Welles himself) stand for a tradition of highly theatrical, actor-led drama which reached its height at the Old Vic of the late 1950s and then got overtaken by the Cambridge academics who founded the RSC and later ran the National.

It also has to be said that, given Chichester's current economic troubles, this Chimes at Midnight is woefully underfunded and often horrendously undercast, so that at times it looks like the kind of tacky pageant run up by Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir at the Gate in Dublin, where they first discovered Welles early in the 1930s. Yet for all that there is a weird kind of majesty here, and most of what goes wrong is simply what went wrong when Welles first had the characteristically megalomanic idea of an all-Falstaff show 40 years ago.

If you cut away all else in these great plays, you lose that all-important sense of a tapestry of England from the highest to the lowest in the land; all that really obsessed Welles was the idea of Hal torn between two fathers, Falstaff and the King, but as a result many of the minor characters here drift around the stage shorn of their subplots and therefore with no real reason for existence.

Callow is a memorable if not mesmeric Falstaff, lacking both the ruined majesty of the late Robert Stephens in the role but also unable quite to capture the joyous bravado of the best I ever saw, Anthony Quayle. For all that, his is a thoughtful, jovial, intelligent and at the last touching old knight, best when he is left alone on stage to chat to the audience about the joys of alcohol or the inanity of seeking honour on a battlefield.

Elsewhere, however, both Tam Williams (as Hal) and Tristan Gemmill (as Hotspur) are dangerously and unexpectedly lightweight, and it is left to a few oldstagers like Timothy Bateson and John Warner to bring, in the Shallow-Silence scene also shamefully truncated by Welles, a rare distinction in character and verse, though other old luwies in beards and cloaks wander around as if involved in some pre-war Garrick Club pantomime. …

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