13 December 2014

A day full of Shakespeare with Henry IV Parts I and II at the Barbican


I am definitely not seeing Shakespeare's history plays in quite the right order and it does not help that I did not learn my Kings and Queens at school well enough to put the plays i context.

At least the previous history play that I saw was Richard II, also a RSC production at the Barbican and I did see Henry IV Parts I and II in the right order too. It is just that in recent years I have also seen Richard III and Henry V and the later gave me a good clue as to how these would end.

It was the success of Richard II earlier in the year that had brought the RSC back for the sequels. The Barbican is not the easiest place for me to get to so the best way to see both shows was to do so on the same day. That was a staggering five and a half hours of Shakespeare and a total of around ten hours at the Barbican.

Henry IV Part I started at 1:30pm so I got there about an hour before hand to collect my tickets, eat and drink something and to settle in ready for the long session.

Neither performance was completely sold out and so, as has happened before there, the Barbican offered a free upgrade for both shows to seats in the stalls. I had deliberately chose the front row of the Upper Circle because of the price and the certainty of an uninterrupted view (I have a pathological fear of tall people in theatres) but the deal was that I could use my original tickets if I did not like the upgrade. That seemed very fair to me.

Henry IV Part I started where Richard II ended and we saw a ghost of the dead king at Henry's coronation to remind us of that.

Henry IV's aim was to unite the kingdom under his good rule but his plan to be nice to everybody quickly fell apart as old grudges led to new rebellions.

Meanwhile his son, who was destined to become Henry V, was living it up with wine, women and song. He was helped in this by Sir John Falstaff.

That led to two parallel stories that ran across the two plays, Henry IV quelling revolts and Sir John Falstaff taking every advantage he could with people. Over the five hours Henry V moved from the Sir John Falstaff camp to his father's.

The Sir John Falstaff story was the funnier and with Antony Sher staring in the role it was the main story too. This was a history play with just a little history but a lot of comedy.

The rebellions story was good too but a little predictable as I knew how it ended. The detail was completely new to me though as I knew nothing of the waring factions, or of the main players in them, beforehand.

I cannot recall where in the plots Part I ended and Part II started and seeing the two together proved to be a good idea.

I had a couple of hours free between the plays and this time quickly evaporated in a walk around the Barbican, part exploration and part exercise, and in a meal. I had though of visiting one of the exhibitions or of reading some of the comics on my iPad but I ran out of time. Relaxing can be very time consuming.

Henry IV Parts I and II are not Shakespeare's best plays (in my opinion) but they still managed to enthral me for five and a half hours and this production by the RSC did everything right without being too fussy.

It was a highly entertaining day and while I was worried that the two plays might be a little too long and the Barbican unable to keep me comfortable all day both fears were so unfounded that I would have been quite happy if the plays had been longer and I had had more time to spend at the Barbican.

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