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SHAKEY ALL OVER

03-01-2008

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging all the Bard’s history plays in repertory at Stratford-upon-Avon.  Laurence Inman samples just three.

As in everything else, there are trends and fashions in Shakespeare productions.

Some plays are hardly ever performed, especially the ones we now think were helped along and padded out by Thomas Middleton.

Some, like Measure For Measure or Troilus And Cressida come and go depending on the mores of particular times.

It’s easy to see why this should be. Putting on a Shakespeare play is a lengthy and expensive business, so if you don’t do one of the top ten you’re unlikely to make anything back. Macbeth, Hamlet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Tempest are regulars on curriculum-lists and so productions are guaranteed a good run of captive fidgets in the audience.

Of the English History plays Henry V is the certain favourite, then Richard III.

This is unfortunate because the best of them, by far, is Henry IV Part One.

It’s got everything: poetry of oceanic depth and significance, farcical comedy, rich relationships. It deals with issues which never stale: power, deceit, love, youth and age.

The production currently at The Courtyard in Stratford is well worth a visit, if only to see the brilliant David Warner doing full justice to one of the two great Shakespearian old-man parts: Falstaff.

Geoffrey Streatfield is Hal, Clive Wood is a dependable King Henry and Lex Shrapnel was a deadly Hotspur (although the idea that he was married to this particular Lady Percy was a little far-fetched, and tended to spoil one of the play’s key scenes.)

There are three worlds in this play.

First there’s the Court, where words like honour and duty are rarely off people’s lips. Here, everyone is bad-tempered, never satisfied and usually dead fairly quickly.

Then there’s Eastcheap. Everyone there is jolly, contemptuous of authority, thinking only of drinking, eating and having sex, not necessarily in that order.

The third world, that of the Rebels, is hard and nasty, like the Court, but with the extra ingredient of extravagant self-deception, which can lead them to believe that going into battle with only half their promised force can actually turn out to be an advantage!

On the day I went, a Saturday, they did the two Henry IV’s (starting at 10.30 am and 3pm) followed by Henry V in the evening. I only did the first two. Some people did all three, and Richard II the previous day!

It was a lovely occasion. I am now convinced that these plays are the best of Shakespeare, which makes them the best plays ever written. I had a fantastic seat, right at the front. I came out into the fresh, early-winter evening, conscious that the brain which dreamt up the whole miraculous creation was still rotting slowly away under Holy Trinity church a few yards towards the river.

Only one sour note: I’m fed up of watching Shakespeare surrounded by people who talk like they’d just walked out of Brief Encounter. Why is ‘culture’ so closely bound up with class in this country? Eh? Eh?

The woman sitting next to us smiled in recognition when we sat down at the start of Part Two, so why, when I asked her if she was staying for Henry V, did she look at me as if I’d wiped a bogey on her coat .

Was it my accent, perhaps?

To see Paula Elenor’s review of the entire History Play cycle, click here

The cycle runs until mid-March.  Booking details at www.rsc.org.uk

What’s our favourite Shakey?  Leave a comment on our Message Board.

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