Review: Player Kings

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In the current landscape of theatreland, there are very few actors whom one might dare to call unparalleled. Sir Ian McKellen is undoubtedly one of them. His performance as Falstaff in a new adaptation of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, by Robert Icke proves that youth is not a guarantee of innovation, rather McKellen makes the contrary readily apparent.

For many of us the connotations which appear in the mind when the phrase ‘a Shakespeare history play’ is uttered are ones of dread, boredom and an ultimate realisation that one is about to watch a play where characters are named after counties of this sceptered isle and their desperate and (often times) embarrassing attempts to seize power. It was (dear reader) with these mental scars that I went to watch Player Kings a new adaptation of Henry IV parts one and two adapted and directed by Robert Icke. In all, this production with its fresh and smart approach to Shakespeare’s two plays proved to absolve the sins associated with other history plays. As a starter for ten, Player Kings sought (and succeeded) to present the comedic nature of the two plays and not just present them on their own terms but rather successfully transpose them to a modern audience. On this point, I remember distinctly as Sir John Falstaff pretends to be dead on the battlefield, the curtain beginning to close with a solemn respect only to be sent back from where it came as McKellen rises with all the courage of youth to his feet. One feels that I must elucidate the nature of this laughter. It was not the laughter typically associated with productions of Shakespeare history plays, by which I mean the laughter of an audience trying to understand a pun which is four hundred years out of date. Rather, it was laughter at a production which had captured the spirit of the times and, by doing so, further emboldened the two plays and the character of Falstaff in particular.

A role which McKellen makes his own and dominates every inch of the stage

As one would expect at the Noël Coward, the sets used throughout the play were dressed very well and gave a clear and distinct sense of time and place. This is no mean feat considering the disparate locations in which the events of the play take place within. From the grandeur of Westminster, to the bloody battlefields and to the shabby and (admittedly) seedy Boars Head Tavern in EastCheap, the set design worked well to convey the essence of each of these locations even in the face of rapid scene changes.

Now, let us turn to McKellen and his Falstaff, as it really is a role which McKellen makes his own and dominates every inch of the stage. It is the kind of stage presence only merited by a Shakespearen actor who has had the kind of career that McKellen has had. When McKellen is on stage there is a simultaneous sense of reverence (by virtue of his previous performances across decades) and a sense of bewilderment at just how bloody good he is in the role. These previous sentences might sound to you, dear reader, that I have been employed by the theatre’s press office to provide a hagiography of the production (I assure you that I haven’t), but of those of you who might not quite believe me I pose one simple rebuttal – can you name one living actor who could fulfil the inimitable role of Falstaff with the same complicated vibrancy that McKellen provides?

On The Graham Norton Show, of all places, fellow actor (and professional Welshman) Michael Sheen described the mere prospect of McKellen playing Falstaff on stage as a “major cultural moment” and without a scintilla of doubt McKellen lived up to this appraisal. It was without doubt one of the best, most compelling and skilful portrayals of a Shakespearen character that I have had the good fortune to see.

As one would expect at the Noël Coward, the sets used throughout the play were dressed very well and gave a clear and distinct sense of time and place

With the appraisal of the production that I have just provided to you, you would be forgiven for thinking that this production is somewhat of a ‘one man band’ kind of a play. Indeed, Player Kings does rest heavily on the shoulders of McKellen’s Falstaff, but the rest of the cast provide equally engaging and arresting performances. In particular, Hal played by Toheeb Jimoh gives the character a youthful and boyish charm and equally Richard Coyle plays the ever weakening king Henry IV starting from a place of fragility instead of the boldness of a King, which served to humanise the often abstract sense in which we consider Kings and Queens whom are often shrouded by the cloak of history.

Though despite the joviality of the play, it was clear to me that Player Kings is ultimately a tragedy. A tragedy about power and (in a less abstract sense) a tragedy about fathers and sons with Hal being caught between two father figures in Falstaff and King Henry IV who serve as opposite ends of a magnet pulling the young man to his fate. In the end, Hal succeeds his father as King and the tragedy of this can be expressed in one single line: “the King has killed his heart” as at the end of the play Falstaff is left alone on stage without the man he has treated as a son. In the end, Hal falls into the old Laconian trap about Kings, namely, the definition of a madman is a beggar who thinks he is a King but also a King who believes he is a king. Hal leaves behind the world of Falstaff for the absurdity of monarchy, this is essentially the tragedy on which both parts of Henry IV rest upon and the tragedy in which this production thrived.

Image credit: Raph via Wikimedia Commons

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