Review: Strong performances all around make Henry IV a must-see for Hong Kong Shakespeare fans

The first chapter of Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Great Cycle of Kings’ is a worthy commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 2:56pm

The Hong Kong Arts Festival’s King and Country programme presents three plays – Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II and Henry V – part of the “Great Cycle of Kings” staged by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The opening play, perhaps Shakespearean theatre at its best, is a masterly production, with thrilling acting from an outstanding cast.

READ MORE: Bringing Shakespeare’s history plays to China ‘very cool’, RSC lead actor says ahead of tour

King and Country charts the progress of Henry V from the dissolute Prince Hal – whose boon companions are a gang of thieves and low-lifes led by Sir John Falstaff – to the heroic English monarch who leads his troops to victory at Agincourt.

The realism of Shakespeare’s “history” plays may surprise those who identify the playwright with the lyricism of Romeo and Juliet or the moral debates of Hamlet.

Eschewing verse for vivid dialogue that takes us straight to the back streets of 16th century London, Henry IV, Part I deals with themes as modern as today’s headlines: a father’s despair over a son hanging out in bad company, the struggle for political power and the ravages of war.

The story juxtaposes Hal’s inglorious activities in Eastcheap with the acts of another Henry – Harry Percy, known as Hotspur, the dauntless soldier Hal envies, admires and ultimately kills in battle when Percy leads a rebellion against the king.

Director Gregory Doran does an immaculate job of pacing this long, complex play and balancing the interwoven stories with their many characters. He brings out the work’s wealth of comedy and contrasts it deftly with flashes of dramatic power: the interplay between Hotspur and his wife on the eve of battle is poignant, the moment when Hal strikes the Chief Justice shocking, the final battle brutal.

Antony Sher is a magnificent Falstaff, riotously funny (his excruciatingly refined accent is an inspired touch), and irresistible despite the awfulness of his behaviour (a liar, a coward and a thief, Falstaff was nonetheless so popular that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in response to public demand for another play about him).

Matthew Needham puts Hotspur centre stage in a riveting performance that gives Sher a run for his money in hilarity (who knew Hotspur could be so funny) yet remains convincing as intrepid military leader and moving in his death.

Alex Hassell gives a strong performance as Hal, neatly contrasting his arrogance in Eastcheap with his touchingly awkward attempts to win his father’s approval – the only quibble is that he’s a tad too mature for the role, but the seeds of the future Henry V are plain to see.

The entire cast act superbly and, as might be expected from Britain’s premier Shakespearean ensemble, give a masterclass in making the language sound natural without losing clarity of diction. A special word for Jennifer Kirby’s fine Lady Percy, flying the female flag in this testosterone-driven play.

Henry IV (Part I), The Royal Shakespeare Company, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Reviewed: Mar 4. Further performances on March 8 and March 11.