William Shakespeare historians have tried and failed to find a figure during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V who might have been the inspiration for Sir John Falstaff, whom many of the playwright's advocates consider the preeminent Shakespeare character.
Appearing in both Henry IV plays and again in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is a full-bodied personage in more ways than one. Over the course of the three plays he's as lovable and trying a man as can be imagined. In that measure, he can be seen as Shakespeare's version of Everyman and profoundly appreciated as such.
So with every new production of the works in which Falstaff rambunctiously struts his considerable stuff -- disseminating lies right and left, then wriggling out of the corner into which he's gotten himself -- one of the chief questions is who will impersonate the man. What superb actor is going to portray a man who declares himself "not only witty in myself but the cause of wit in others" and a man so indifferent to the practical applications of honor that "Therefore I'll have none of it"?
Here's the good news, Falstaff lovers. (What Shakespeare fan doesn't dote on Falstaff?) The opportunity to savor another outstanding one is coming your way. He's Antony Sher, whose Falstaff is a gutsy (again in more than one senses of the word), genuinely earthy Falstaff. Sher's offering his crafted and crafty handiwork in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry IV Parts I &II, directed by company artistic head Gregory Doran.
(The HD version starts showing up on international screens July 5. Check for dates at theaters near you: onscreen.rsc.org/uk/cinemas-and-tickets/).
I'd like to go on and on about Sher's performance -- Sher, a first-rate Shakespearean actor for decades (an indelible Richard III, an unforgettable Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear). And I will, but not before making it clear I'm assessing his performance and the performances of his equally polished colleagues not on their entire performances in the enduring history plays but only on the first 100 minutes of each that are included in the CDs sent reviewers.
What that means is that, among numerous other beautifully realized scenes, I've watched the brilliant tavern segments in both Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. The first is the one where Falstaff impersonates the King to Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) playing himself, after which they switch roles. The fun stems from Shakespeare's having Falstaff praise himself while pretending to be King Henry, only to have Hal as the king fiercely deride Falstaff to Falstaff as the Prince. In the second play, Falstaff's boisterous make-out session with Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) and the arrival of the mad Pistol (Antony Byrne) turns up to distinguish the first 100 minutes.
Both scenes illustrate Shakespeare's ability to find the very real humor and pathos in the behavior of the bawdy lower classes. The examinations of the raucous Boar's Head crew can be enjoyed by Shakespeare partisans in contrast to his depiction of rustics in the comedies. In the latter instances, where what may have made them thigh-slappingly funny in the 16th century but doesn't always translate as amusingly to the 21st century, the Henry IV vignettes retain a contemporary ring.
So though I'm declaring Sher way on top of the material as far as I've seen it, I can't comment on what happens after the first 100 minutes in each play. I'm writing without having seen how Sher handles the speech about honor or how he reacts when (spoiler alert for those coming fresh to the play) Hal becomes king and in a new guise snubs his old friend and drinking companion.
To carry on about Sher isn't intended to ignore the accomplishments of his fellow cast mates. Hassell is a commendable Prince, a young man marked by his enjoyment at being a scamp with pal Ned Poins (Sam Marks, strong) and athis sometimes chummy, sometimes abusive treatment of Falstaff. His riotous behavior covers up the large trick he's playing on everyone as a prodigal son. The joke is that he's setting himself up to astonish the nation by making a dramatic about-face when he succeeds his father.
Also forceful in the cast are: Jasper Britton as a Henry IV still suffering guilt pangs after deposing Richard II; Trevor White as an extremely short-fused Hotspur; Paola Dionisotti as a wizened and subtly wise Mistress Quickly; and Joshua Richards as a delightfully slow-witted Bardolph. Not appearing in those first 100 minutes of Henry V Part II was the always reliable Oliver Ford Davies as the aptly named Justice Shallow.
The Henry plays were videoed at the RSC's Stratford-upon-Avon home and are therefore presented on a thrust stage that designer Stephen Brimson Lewis supplies with partial sets from time to time but just as often keeps bare. At those times, it falls to Tim Mitchell's lighting to establish the mood for the forest robberies, the castle anterooms and the other crucial events, which he does with effortless effort. Much depends on the effectiveness of Martin Slavin's sound and Paul Englishby's music, and they come through as well.
Since Shakespeare's quotable quotes spice all his plays, audience members at them can be seen nodding as familiar passages are uttered. Perhaps the most trenchant in Henry IV Part II is "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." The dying king speaks it when not only his life is ebbing but his spirit is also failing. It's a statement that goes to the heart of a frequent Shakespearean theme: the complexities of sovereignty
Britton, sitting on the floor in nightclothes makes the observation memorable here when he confides it. But an instantly recognizable remark doesn't have to be the only reason for something to cling on in the memory. Take careful note of Sher when, in an unusually defenseless Falstaff moment, the irascible fellow cuddling Doll Tearsheet on his knee, says, "I am old. I am old." What Sher allows his Falstaff face to do then is the essence of first-rate acting.
Shakespeare knew what he was about, and in their turn Doran and company know what to do when tackling the incomparable playwright.