TARA CARLIN reviews UCLU Drama Society’s production of Henry IV Part One at the Bloomsbury Theatre
Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One, and Part Two, both explore the themes of political power struggles and war catastrophes. Although they were both written before the year 1600, are these themes not some of the greatest worldwide concerns of today? They seem to have always been: history has a way of repeating itself. It is no surprise then, that these plays have experienced a recent surge in popularity. Today, the Royal Shakespeare Company has just transferred their production of Henry IV from Stratford to the Barbican, just as the Donmar Warehouse brings theirs to a close.
So what is it about this play that arouses such interest? The primary focus of the first part involves Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, who is frittering away his days through the indulging in booze and women. Meanwhile, a rebellion is taking place, led by the diffident Duke of Northumberland, the regal Duchess of Worcester and the erratic Henry Percy. From living in a world of frivolous antics and irresponsibility, Hal is forced to mature when faced with the outcomes of this rebellion. Arguably, though this maturity does not fully blossom until the second play. The bawdy buffoon Falstaff enjoys friendship with Hal in Part One, but is rejected by him in the second play – he seems to have no place in the new kingdom that Henry V is forming. So is it then important for the audience to view both parts of the play?
Unlike the Donmar and The RSC, UCLU Drama Society decided to present the Part One alone. The audience is therefore only provided with half of Hal’s history, they are only informed of a fraction of the tale. The Royal Shakespeare Company clearly sees merit in the amalgamation of the two plays, possibly to create a more accessible narrative arc. Drama Society performed the play as Shakespeare wrote Part One: a single and complete play. They delivered an innovative production whilst being true to the traditional Shakespearian elements of slapstick comedy and theatrical characterization. As a Shakespeare production ought to be, the production was embellished with a carefully considered set and authentic costumes.
Director Sophia Chetin-Leuner chose to subvert tradition by placing the play in London, during the Second World War, to cleverly convey the universal themes being presented. Henry IV’s throne room imitates Churchill’s wartime office, whilst the Boar’s Head Tavern is transformed into a 1940s pub. The power of the monarchy in Shakespeare’s era mimics the ruling influence of government in contemporary society. It does not matter who is ruling, just that someone always is. There was a clear juxtaposition between the stage’s two halves, as Henry IV’s puritan, monochrome throne contrasted the homely pub adjacent that did not possess the same wealth and power.
The set emulated the 40s era, with a saxophonist and uncannily accurate costumes. Setting the show in this era was a great move, as it brought the production down to earth and made the content even more identifiable to the modern-day audience. It is crucial to mention how well cast this production was: Price Hal (played by Christian Hines) possessed appropriate youthful charm and foolishness, and the passionate performance delivered by Percy (Eddie-Joe Robinson) must also be praised. In addition, Henry IV (Pavlos Christodoulou) emulated the royal archetype with his bellowing voice and broad physiology. Due to such perceptive casting, the performances delivered were absorbing.
The Drama Society’s version incorporated the different seasons, such as winter snow, to highlight the timeless theme of war and demonstrating history cyclic, repetitive nature. They produced a brilliant production, showing it is perhaps unnecessary to perform both parts. Although the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar see the merit in combining the two plays, UCLU Drama society proved that the first part epitomises the crucial themes in its own right, and still works today as a stand alone play.