Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shakespeare and Impermanence: Henry IV Part II, Barbican, and Winter's Rages, Rose Playhouse

Hang on - I thought Henry IV Pt II was meant to be inferior to the first. I mean, that's what critics throughout the ages have said. A couple of weeks back I saw the Donmar's all-female Henry IV, which one might think would span the works equitably - but Part II hardly got a look in, with only a couple of scenes tagged on to bring us to the crowning of Hal. Director Phyllida Lloyd was unrepentant about this, dismissing parts of the sequel as "bucolic meanderings".

Blimey. Well, the RSC folk obviously didn't see it this way, and staged a performance of Part II that rivalled any theatre I have seen in terms of depth, charm and sheer joy. Much of this joy and charm came embodied in Antony Sher's masterful Falstaff, who drank, lied, and confided to the audience with such candour that I was sorry to leave his company. I have now seen Sher's Falstaff in both parts, and I feel like I know him personally. I know I'm going to miss him.

Shakespeare based Falstaff upon Henry V's old friend, Sir John Oldcastle; and this caused something of a spat at the time. Part I was a smash hit, a sell out, but somewhere along the line it is likely that one of Oldcastle's progeny - possibly Baron Cobham himself - watched on with horror at the lampooning of a beloved ancestor. Letters flew, arms were twisted, and Shakespeare felt obliged to include an epilogue to the next play, explaining that Falstaff would be back . . hurrah! . . but, by the way, his character had nothing to do with noble, courageous, honourable John Oldcastle. Mumblings. Snorting. Yeah right. 

Falstaff is great company. He is always up for a party; he drinks continuously and is forever weaving schemes and inventions. Inveterate liar, whore monger, thief - there's little to dislike about him. For instance, in Part 2, he gives a thoughtful speech praising the twofold effects of sherry. I wish more playwrights would explore the subject as eloquently.

As we sat chuckling through Sher's monumental performance, it occurred to me that here Shakespeare had immortalised  a prototype - the roistering soak, who liberates us temporarily from the iron cage of puritanism. In Elizabethan England, with its mutaween, Falstaff was a provocative, and wholly necessary, figure. And so he remains in today's climate of PC, self-censorship and myriad -isms. Falstaff coupling with Doll Tearsheet spawned all the tragic, but challenging ne'er do wells that keep us from turning into automata . . . Oliver Reed, Liz Taylor, Georgie Best, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Jeffrey Bernard . . Talking of which, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was obviously inspired by Pt 2. Keith Waterhouse merely locked Falstaff into the Boar's Head for an evening, and had him reflecting upon his adventures. I will never think of the Coach and Horses in the same way again.

In my obsessive viewing of Shakespeare plays, I have seen some wonderful performances, but Antony Sher's Falstaff is someone I will never forget. I feel privileged to have met the great man.

Another highlight of this week was seeing "Winter's Rages" at the Rose Playhouse. In this inventive piece, Sophie Kochanowska has cut and pasted together snippets of Shakespeare, and Bard-influenced music to produce a stark, post modern exploration of impermanence. Blioux Kirkby was superb as she played a mentally ill Ophelia, and a fragile, traumatised Ariel; and her singing was rich, alluring and charismatic. Hannah Yip played the keyboards throughout quite brilliantly - in the cold as well. It was, however, Sophie Kochanowska herself who dominated, with the unsettling Drei Lieder der Ophelia by Richard Strauss, and Fear No More the Heat O'The Sun, by Gerald Finzi. Her playing of the youthful, doomed Juliet about to take a sleeping potion was fresh and disturbing. Congratulations to all for highlighting a theme that runs through so much of the Bard's work - impermanence. In many ways, Shakespeare was a Buddhist, and here tonight, as Sophie Kochanoska's singing echoed around the Rose, the truth and tragedy of impermanence was given a voice.

Fresh, disturbing, post-modern . . . how adaptable Shakespeare is. What would Falstaff have made of "Winter's Rages"? Well, he would have enjoyed the singing and the beautiful players . . . but he probably would have disgraced himself, and got himself ejected from the Rose. I'm glad then I left him roaring with laughter in the Boar's Head. More sack, boy . . more sack!!

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