Performances of plays from Shakespeare’s Globe continue to appear on Kultur DVDs, with mixed results. The production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” (in two separate jewel cases of two discs each) is extremely well done, except for moments of shtick designed to make Falstaff (Roger Allam) “funnier.” Falstaff is funny but never absurd. Here the director goes for cheap laughs from an audience that is assumed not to understand anything subtle.
For example, it is fitting that the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams) should vomit. It is not that she should vomit again, this time over a member of the audience. But to spend a full minute of Falstaff’s (simulated) urinating into a small pot is more distasteful than funny. And the entire episode of Ancient Pistol (Sam Crane) disrupting the inn is so loud and slapstick that little of the shouted dialogue is understandable.
Oliver Cotton brings little characterization to Henry IV. When Falstaff reports that the king’s beard has turned white at some bad news, one has already seen his beard to be already white. Didn’t anyone in the make-up department catch this? In fact, Shakespeare uses old age as a theme in Part II, and most of the characters refer to themselves as considerably older than they were in Part I. In this production, no one seems to have aged.
The story is that Shakespeare really did not wish to bring Falstaff into another play, but the public demanded it. And to tell the truth, that character begins to grow tedious as Part II goes on. Shakespeare is merely recycling the comic material from Part I by extending it. The director does not help by having Falstaff imitate a rock guitarist when playing a lute, and the pelvic thrusts grow tiresome. Since the costumes and setting are all Elizabethan, such anachronisms defeat the purpose of the enterprise at Shakespeare’s Globe.
On the other hand, Allam is an intelligent actor; and for the most part, his Falstaff is quite good. I blame only the director for the faults in his characterization.
Played by Jamie Parker, Prince Hal is forever barnstorming his lines, so that his lowlife Hal and his serious Prince Henry are hard to tell apart. Perhaps some of this is caused by the necessity to speak at full volume so the entire 180 degrees of audience can hear the lines if not see all of the action.
Thanks to a good supporting cast, this is a very satisfactory production of “Henry IV,” with Part I done better than Part II.
The text is fairly complete, which makes for some very long speeches. The actors, especially Oliver Cotton, should be drilled in breaking these speeches into beats, rather than pushing on through them and losing the strings of thoughts so carefully developed by the author.
Much is made of interpolated songs, mostly to cover scenery changes (which are done efficiently by the cast) and sometimes to set a mood. But the dances at the end use modern moves, which again destroys the illusion of “Shakespeare as it once was.”
Note: Try to read “Richard II,” at least the last two acts, or a good synopsis. Most viewers will understand little of the background of these plays without doing so.
The running time of Part I is 167 minutes, that of Part II is 171. The picture is in 16:9 widescreen and there are no subtitles (which are badly needed).