Shakespeare’s Henriad trilogy comprising Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V is one of dramas greatest studies in character development, taking the young and flighty Prince Hal from rebellious, tavern-dwelling rascal to warrior king. Against the backdrop of one of the most formative periods of English history in which the Plantagenet dynasty solidified its power, setting down attempts to overthrow their dynastic control, while sewing the seeds for the York versus Lancaster battles that are the foundation of our modern monarchy. It is little wonder that the role of Prince Hal / Henry V has attracted many of our finest actors from Alex Hassell for the RSC to Tom Hiddleston for the BBC and Timothee Chalamet for Netflix. Just as attractive, the role of Henry IV himself has been played by many illustrious performers on stage and screen including Patrick Stewart and Jeremy Irons, while Hal’s great friend Falstaff has been Simon Russell Beale, Joel Edgerton and Anthony Sher.
Now Drama on 3 adds to this distinguished group with a radio production led by Iain Glen, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson. Henry IV – Part One is a play about transition in which the central characters are forced to accept their own destiny, to see themselves truly for the first time. And while much of the attention is on the partying prince learning the error of his youthful exuberance and foolish friendship, in focusing equally on Falstaff and King Henry, Shakespeare has much to say about the indignities of ageing, the taciturn nature of monarchy and the nature of public image.
Sally Avens’s radio drama, contained within a two-hour running time, expends some of the broader historical narrative to really develop the idea of Hal torn between two seemingly different but mutually disappointing father figures as he subconsciously attempts to hide from his duty as heir apparent. It is a production in which military endeavour becomes the means through which an estranged son is reconciled with one father while starting to see through another.
As with Emma Harding’s excellent Othello a few weeks ago, Avens’s Henry IV – Part One finds an intimacy with its central characters, drawing them metaphorically and audibly into the foreground to explore their quite different characters, as well as their inexplicable hold over one another. And whether attention is focused on any of Shakespeare’s three character sets – the Court, the Eastcheap Group or the Rebels – the clarity of their purpose and the complexity of their motivation is given prominence. The overall effect is to clearly see how loyalties within the tetralogy (Richard II and the three Henry plays) are shaped over time, changing as political fortunes ebb and flow.
The creation of place once again becomes crucial to managing the three strands of the story before the cataclysmic intersection of these parties at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The murmur of voices and revelry that make up the Eastcheap Tavern suggest plenty of happy afternoons for Prince Hal and Falstaff in the cosy but not overwhelmingly busy confines of their favourite drinking establishment. There is a warmth and welcome in this soundscape that does so much to add to the atmosphere of the pub. Likewise, the cold and formal austerity of the court has a faint echoing quality suggestive of grand medieval stonework and the reverent silence of its architecture. Meanwhile the homely countryside residence of the Percy family has a foreboding quality, of happy family life soon to be disrupted, the calm before the storm.
The use of sound effects comes into its own in the play’s final sequences set in the midst of the battle, and while TV budgets mean these scenes can look a little sparse – often a handful of men meant to look like thousands, or worse clunky CGI battalions – using audio effects alone better creates the chaos and energy of combat, richly conveyed here using layers of sound including clanking swords, whinnying horses and the physical exertion of engaged men across the battlefield as exhausted but exhilarated soldiers contend.
And this becomes crucial as the battle marks a watershed in the wider play, both in terms of the various political machinations that have threatened Henry’s throne as well as marking a sea change in the characterisation, setting-up some new behaviours as well as the notable decline of the old ways that dominates the atmosphere in Henry IV-Part Two, which in turn subsequently makes way for the outward facing foreign policy programme and dynastic consolidation of Henry V. Consequently, the Battle of Shrewsbury feels climactic and decisive in several ways, and Avens’s production has some sense of the completeness that Shakespeare intends when he left this play without a cliffhanger.
Instead, the rebels are crushed, Hal proves his worth while reconciling with his father and Falstaff’s mendacity is finally the cause of a severence with the young prince. This Drama on 3 version slims the text in a way rarely seen on stage, but nonetheless manages to take the characters through their story arc and deposit them creditably at the point of ultimate military and personal conquest ready for the wheel of fortune to turn further in Part Two.
Falstaff is one of drama’s most memorable comic creations and his presence dominates what is essentially a dynastic story of political stability played across a number of father-son relationship. In most Shakespeare plays it is relatively unusual for the humorous sideshow characters to dominate proceedings, although recent versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall emphasised the Rude Mechanicals and built their vision for the play around them. Yet Falstaff alone has long held the cultural imagination.
Toby Jones might struggle to be cast onstage bearing as little resemblance to the portly alcoholic of description as the tall, slight Matthew Needham did to the physical heft of Stanley Kowalski, but radio offers much greater casting fluidity for actors and Jones is superb as the verbose, flustered and evasive merrymaker who prizes his own comfort above duty, loyalty and most importantly truth.
Using just his voice, Jones vividly conveys the shabby untidiness of the man, a very bodily implication of lumbering dishevelment that has tones of his recent (and sadly truncated) performance as Vanya. Falstaff lies with disarming ease, mixing outright falsehoods with exaggerations and misdirection in an attempt to increase his own sense of importance, making his achievements grander and more daring than they really were.
With considerable skill, Jones doesn’t go looking for the comedy but allows it to emerge naturally from the characterisation he builds, strongly suggesting how little control Falstaff has over these aspects of his personality which come more from a disordered fluster than a malicious desire to deceive, at least in his tavern-based bragging, a drunken desire to tell the best story. It is only when he is really in danger at the Battle of Shrewsbury where his self-preservation instinct becomes more poisonous in Jones’s interpretation, nicely creating the conditions for the rift with Prince Hal that follows in Part Two.
Luke Thompson builds on his growing portfolio of Shakespeare performances, giving his Prince Hal a playful quality, a young man enjoying his freedom and the company of men that on one level he finds ridiculous. The cheeky and teasing tone that Thompson employs when talking to Falstaff in particular and the enjoyment of practical jokes and impressions is tempered by a hint of mockery, the lightest touch of disdain that suggests that this ‘young Harry’ never forgets his superiority of birth, intelligence and manner in which his thoughts are already turning to life beyond Eastcheap, even as the play begins.
Soon, then, the various and obvious exaggerations of his companion are met with exasperated irony, as though the shine is coming off the friendship. Thus, when Hal is recalled to Court to help set-down the brewing rebellion, Thompson’s heir apparent is ready to move into his public role, to finally assume the responsibilities of adulthood that mark his progress through these three plays. Although Part Two will see this resolve waver slightly, here in Part One, the final confrontation with Tom Glynn-Carney’s Hotspur on the battlefield is climactic and decisively played by a prince at once defending and assuming his birthright.
There are further theatre stars among the extended cast including Iain Glen adding a wonderful gravitas at Henry IV, the monarch who conquered his way to the crown, sober and grave but regal and dignified in his management of the court. The stately rage he summons to address his former comrades marks a clear separation between the man he once was and the king he has become – foreshadowing Hal’s own transformation in this trilogy – and the dismissal with which he treats Hotspur clearly ignites the ire of the Percy clan.
But it is the relationship with Prince Hal where Henry IV’s stoical reserve is most tested as Glen intriguingly navigates a sharp disappointment and frustration while retaining a deep affection for the son he physically and emotionally fails to inspire. The lengthy speech on reconciliation addressed to Hal is a wonderful example of inspirational chastisement in which Glen stirringly advocates the transforming soberness of monarchy and the exchange of person for symbol that he hopes Hal will replicate, while shaming him with tales of the fiery exploits of Hotspur.
The stunted rebellion, led by the Percys, is often the least considered aspect of the story despite mirroring Henry IV’s own belligerent ascent to the throne, but there Avens carves this story into three, alloting equal time to their cause, suggesting how the once allied family lost faith in the man they previously helped to make a king. Tom Glynn-Carney is a determined Hotspur, barely able to conceal his temper when the Percy name is seemingly disrespected by Henry IV, and implying a close family life with Mark Bonnar’s Worcester. The various extended relationships with the Welsh and Scottish insurgents remain as confusing as Shakespeare wrote them but John Nicholls music lends their conversations plenty of conspiratorial atmosphere.
This Henry VI-Part One is at heart a character-study rather than a historical epic, and Avens brings the recording of soliloquies forward in the soundscape to create intimacy and insight. It gives this fine collection of theatre actors a chance to really explore the inner life of their characters and bring them fully and roundly to life in this enjoyable radio dramatisation. Whether just this first portion of the Henriad trilogy was commissioned or lockdown has delayed recording of the rest, let’s hope Radio 3 can gather Jones, Glen and Thompson together soon for Henry IV-Part Two and Henry V , although when our theatres reopen we may yet see it staged.