How pleasant that the strength of Four Seven Two Productions' Henry IV part 1 is such that consideration of the relationship between Holinshed's Chronicles of England and Shakespeare's text, and that between Falstaff and the figures of Vice and Riot in stock morality plays can safely be left to dusty folk beavering away in the Bodleian Library, doubtless even as the play unrolled in the basement of the O'Reilly Theatre. The reviewer is thus freed to lavish his attention and even a few superlatives upon this production.
Our set by Olive McAndrew and Laura de Lisle was a dais throne plus not much more than a barrel representing the prince's apartment, and a pile of bed linen on the floor that turned out to represent a little coup de théâtre. Spartan but sufficient, as was the Boar's Head later on. A briefly static opening scene had me for a moment a little concerned, but immediately afterwards it became clear that this production was the fruit of a great deal of intelligent consideration of text and dramatic possibility by director Miranda Mackay, her associates and her actors. The play is surprisingly little produced these days. The history now seems a little obscure, the characters unfamiliar and the allusive, punning language of Falstaff, for all his fame, is tricky. But Ms Mackay has in a sense sidelined the rights and wrongs of the rebel grandees' grievances against the King whom they view as something of a usurper, and zoomed in on the crucial relationship between the four principals who dominate the action and the verse in which it's couched (and here very well spoken, with plenty of rhythm). I don't know how many actors she auditioned for these parts, but I do know that she's come up with four gems.
Our leading quartet are ably served in the smaller parts. Poins, an ambiguous figure in khaki waistcoat, part low rogue and part squire, is played with camp dash by Jack Doyle (ex-Dorian Gray) as a gambolling tempter of his royal companion. To pick out four others, I liked Laura Plumley's indignant Mistress Quickly and Ben Thorne's manipulative, boldly-spoken Worcester, while Ffion Dash's Sir Walter Blunt was a bluff presence and Meg Harrington's Welsh sounded impeccable!
Of our heavyweights, Marcus Knight-Adams, whom I recall from Blavatsky's Tower, was an effective Henry IV in crown circlet and fur stole; while his voice is rasping, he allows us to appreciate the careworn uneasiness under the ruthlessly regal shell. Jonny Wiles bears the burden of the corpulent, playful Falstaff lightly; 'burden' since of course this is one of the great roles of British theatre. The name alone has gone into the language – I have an apple tree that bears Falstaff apples every year! From his dramatic entrance ("Now Hal, what time of day is it, lad?") to his inglorious departure at Shrewsbury ("I'll follow, as they say, for reward"). Mr Wiles with flowing grey locks and fat-suit, waddling in grubby trousers and red scarf, has captured the knavery, fun and verbal slipperiness of the old rogue, as much at ease holding forth to the low-lifes of the Boar's Head as he is nimble in saving his skin at night near Rochester or in battle.
Max Cadman, last seen by me playing small parts in Anna Karenina, and Chris Page had the crucial roles of respectively Prince Hal and Hotspur. The clarity of Miranda Mackay's direction of them – greatly aided by that of both actors' diction - placed the play's focus on their rivalry in age and the way in which they ascribe an initially parallel trajectory that inexorably narrows and then collides fatally. Mr Cadman is a leather-jerkined and top-booted figure, cleverly enabled by his garb to inhabit both the court at Windsor and a tavern-crawl on Eastcheap, while Hotspur boasts a martial crew-cut and is all in brown. Their costumes and that of costume design of the production as a whole by Hanna Høibø are admirable – how often can one say that of a student show? - and not least in creating a similar look for these two rivals. Mr Cadman hits the ground running, unforcedly sincere in his opening soliloquy, and thereafter demonstrates an exceptional variety of tone and volume as he so plausibly inhabits his double life and grows as a man. His movement around the stage, every step and gesture natural yet serving the text, is superb.
Mr Page's Hotspur is angry, aggressive and vehement, obsessed with the Prince. How easy it would have been for this to be a one-note performance. But no: Hotspur's slight stutter brilliantly suggests a hint of frailty and doubt under the didactic carapace. These two terrific actors match each other step by step, and when the climactic confrontation arrives, the battle scenes, staged with flair and muscle by Ms Mackay and fight director Jennifer Hurd, take us to a thrilling conclusion.
The first night audience numbered a disappointing 35 or so. People hesitating about spending their evening with this text, now 420 years old, should ditch their doubts and arrow in on Keble College for a production that's done Shakespeare proud, reminding us once again that limited theatrical resources count for nothing when measured against clarity of purpose and intensity of execution.