Player Kings, Bristol Hippodrome and touring

IN the show Cowardly Custard you will find a song entitled Why Must the Show go on, which makes it rather appropriate that it was from the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre that Sir Ian McKellen fell a couple of weeks ago, making it impossible for him to finish the run of Players Kings there or on the pre-arranged tour of the production.

When you have such a distinctive and powerful personality as Sir Ian playing Sir John Falstaff in this adaptation by Robert Icke, of Shakespeare’s Henry 1V parts one and two, it must be very tempting to fly in the face of theatrical tradition and cancel the tour. After watching the cover [the word understudy appears to be out of fashion and cover is the ‘in’ word] David Semark successfully take on the mantel of Sir John for the remainder of the London run, and receive positive notices, the tour went ahead. After it finishes in the Bristol Hippodrome it moves on to Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle.

David Semark’s Falstaff differs in style, as it must, from Ian McKellen’s – not so flamboyant, but full of hints of the vulnerability of an ageing man who, even though he is loth to admit it to himself, can feel old age creeping on and his mental and physical powers slipping away from him, as surely as is his influence over Toheeb Jimoh’s quickly-maturing Prince Harry.

Some powerful figures emerge, particularly Samuel Edward Cook’s angry young man Harry Hotspur. After the way in which Richard Coyle’s King Henry IV and his political allies did a U-turn after Hotspur had fought so hard to help them to power, Harry Percy’s complaints have the ring of truth about them. But this Hotspur is a crude fellow, all action and little thought, with few political skills and you know he is doomed to failure.

And there you have the focal point of adapter and director Icke’s production – it is the action rather than the characters that come vividly to life. Making full use of Lee Curran and Gareth Fry’s fiery lighting and sound designs, the Battle of Shrewsbury is full of blood and gore, creating a framework for the final deadly confrontation between the passionate Hotspur and determined Prince Harry. It is only when you take a closer look at it that you realise it is all done by smoke and mirrors with just an occasional curtain movement changing the shape of the black-draped stage.

Hildegard Bechtler is responsible for the fundamentally simple sets, which rely heavily on the lighting and sound teams for their effectiveness. She also ensured that visually the play has a modern settings, designing costumes that range from formal court wear and military dress uniforms to khaki camouflage battle uniforms.

In a play full of wonderful characters, I felt that in this adaptation under his own direction Robert Icke, had not allowed the actors sufficient room to explore and enlarge their roles. As a result, the hilarious Gadshill fight sequence garnered fewer laughs than is usual, and the delicious figure of Mistress Quickly, for all of Clare Perkins’ best efforts, was a mere shadow of her usual self.

It took courage and a monetary gamble to bring this production out on tour after their main draw card had to withdraw, and Robert Icke and his company should be supported and congratulated for giving us a chance to see this new adaptation of two of Shakespeare’s all too rarely seen history plays.


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