Sunday, May 26

Player Kings – Noel Coward Theatre

If it were not for the promotion of this show, the title would hide the fact that the play came from Shakespeare’s quill.  Incorporating both Henry IV Part One and Two, this adaptation faces the challenge of giving the audience a decent slice of the two plays, without losing the essence that makes each play special.  It is a brave actor that takes on such a dialogue heavy role as Falstaff, with almost four hours of performance, but Sir Ian McKellen is a brave knight, and despite his eighty-four years, and his acknowledgement that this is a role that he has previously avoided, he is victorious in his joust with words.

Adapted and directed by Robert Icke, there is a fresh breeze blowing through this history play. Gone is the chainmail, replaced with khaki fatigues and red berets; flowing robes are substituted with sharp suits, and pistols take the place of swords.  Icke’s pairing with designer Hildegard Bechtler, ensured that the set and costume design is modern, whilst keeping strong reference points to the longevity of the British monarchy. 

Part One of the play begins following Henry IV’s (Richard Coyle) deposition of Richard II, and his anguish at the continued unrest from those who do not support his assession.  King Henry grows increasingly concerned about his son Prince Harry ‘Hal’ (Toheeb Jimoh) who prefers to frequent bawdy establishments and hang out with undesirables, (hence his relationship with Falstaff), instead of focusing on the growing unrest in the country.  Henry Percy ‘Hotspur’ (Samuel Edward-Cook) and the rebels are the stirrers of trouble, and the dissenters’ aggressive stance leads to the battles that ensue.  Part Two, focuses on the deterioration in the health of King Henry, and the path from Prince Hal’s partying ways, into his succession to the throne, and his regal role as Henry V.  During this period, his friendship with Falstaff evolves, as he finally takes on the responsibilities of office.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

At the core of this play, is Prince Hal, and the shifting balance of his relationship with his father, and Falstaff.  We see this dynamic played out with his ‘Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrel’s’ style at the beginning of the play, moving towards the man whom his father hopes that he will become – the future King.   ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,’ as King Henry quotes, and Prince Hal certainly avoids this responsibility for as long as he can.  Coyle plays King Henry with strength, but his failing health causes him frustration.  Jimoh (Hal) is a wide boy, shirking responsibility like a rebellious teenager, it is unclear whether this is in a bid to gain his father’s attention, but the powerful opening scene with the contrast between the crowning of his father as King Henry IV; which then cuts to Prince Hal’s debauched behaviour; is hugely effective in providing context.

A history play can be very intense and skewed towards conflict, and Shakespeare appears to have created Falstaff to give light relief for his Elizabethan audience.  Developed from a historical figure called Oldcastle, it is believed that Shakespeare changed his name to Falstaff, due to Oldcastle’s piety, his moral beliefs were distinctly opposite to the character that Shakespeare needed.  Falstaff’s lack of morals and self-interest fed Prince Hal with the encouragement he needed to shirk his duties, and to defy his father.  McKellen squeezes every last drop of out of Sir John Falstaff’s selfish nature, he is happy to send men to their death, sponge money from his ‘friends,’ and drinks sack like water.  Given that McKellen avoided the role for so long, it is hard to see why.  He appears natural in his delivery of humour, and it is delightful to see him revelling in Falstaff’s naughtiness.  I would say that Falstaff’s opposite is Henry Percy ‘Hotspur,’ who is played fiercely by Samuel Edward-Cook, whose commitment to his cause, ends in his death, unlike Falstaff, who feigns death, rather than succumb to the dagger himself.

The thought of squeezing these two plays together feels risky, the delivery is quick, and with the swish of a curtain, the scene changes appear effortless.  This is one instance, where innovative ideas and Shakespeare are a marriage made in heaven, the pairing of ideas from Robert Icke and Hildegard Bechtler, go far enough without losing the Bard’s spirit.  The performances are to a high standard across the cast, and the support from the creative team ensures the play flows, which in turn holds the audience’s attention.  A beautiful touch that deserves a mention, is the solo voice of Henry Jenkinson, amongst the other roles that he plays, his singing cuts through the violence, and adds purity.

This is a short season, but it is well worth booking in, and do not worry about the length of the play, at 3 hours and 40 minutes – there is not a dull moment to be had!

Booking is until the 22nd June 2024, and there are last minute day tickets available on this website link – https://www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/player-kings

Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 12th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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