If the last artistic boss of the Royal Shakespeare Company Michael Boyd was a bit of a Roundhead, then his successor Greg Doran is more of a cavalier -- by which I mean he adds meaningful detail rather than stripping a Shakespeare play back to its bare bones. While quite a few of the RSC's recent shows seem to have missed the target, there's no problem with this one. I have seen lots of Doran's Shakespeare productions, and I've never been disappointed. He doesn't impose preconceived ideas of his own but explores the meaning of the text in a way that is instantly accessible to a wide audience, some of whom may be seeing Shakespeare for the first time.
Watching last night in my local cinema, I found the live transmission from Stratford excellent, neatly packaged with crisp presentation and illuminating interviews by Suzy Klein. It was much better than NT Live's dreary packaging of the Donmar's Coriolanus, which was preceded by an interminable loop of trailers and featured some dumbed-down interviews. Suzy Klein works most of the time on Radio 3 and is never going to patronise her audience or her interviewees. Three cheers for that.
The main delight of this production is Antony Sher's Falstaff, who dominates the stage with the swagger of a grand Victorian actor-manager, or perhaps of the fictional 'Sir' played by Albert Finney in that great film The Dresser. On the face of it, it's an astonishing piece of counter-intuitive casting, because Sher is physically thin and wiry, intense and mercurial. But with the aid of some excellent make-up and padding, he triumphs as the fat knight. Sher's Falstaff isn't just physically convincing (after the battle scene his difficulty in getting up off his back by rolling sideways is richly comic) but psychologically too. He speaks slowly, making every word count with actorly precision. Falstaff is a man playing a part to hide his own weaknesses. His relationship with Prince Hal shows him to be needy and flirtatious, while the young prince (Alex Hassell) remains physically close but always at a psychological distance. Hassell captures the sly ambiguity of Hal in a way few other actors have managed. When he finally casts off Falstaff at the end of Part Two, it won't come as a surprise.
The casting of this play is excellent throughout; Jasper Britton is a peppery Henry IV who takes the offensive in the opening scene, making conflict with Hotspur seem inevitable. Trevor White is an outstanding Hotspur, breathtakingly unbalanced in his desire for conflict and his cruel treatment of his wife, and punching the air with glee at the prospect of combat. The tavern scenes are very good indeed, and the fight scene between Hal and Hotspur at the end is terrific.
A friend of mine, seated two rows behind, hated it and left rather noisily before we even got to the interval. Which just goes to show that you can't please everybody. For my money, Sher's Falstaff is one of his great Shakespearean performances, ranking with his RSC Macbeth and his spider-like Richard III. The last time the RSC tackled this play, in Michael Boyd's 2008 Histories cycle, David Warner was Falstaff. Sher's performance outclasses that one by a mile, particularly in its ability to generate comedy from what Shakespeare wrote. The combination of Sher and Hassell in a quasi-paternal relationship is at the centre of this production, and both actors explore rich seams of subtext. I also loved the partnership of Roger Allam and Jamie Parker at the Globe three years ago (Allam deservedly won an Olivier), and Simon Russell Beale's very different reading of the role for BBC television. Falstaff is such a gorgeous part that great actors can dip into it and interpret it in very different ways, all equally valid.
Now I'm looking forward immensely to the live broadcast of Part Two next month.