Theatre review: Henry IV and Henry V, Glasgow

Daniel Campbell is an unruly, passionate Hal in Henry V, swinging between exhilaration and revulsion
Daniel Campbell is an unruly, passionate Hal in Henry V, swinging between exhilaration and revulsion
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NIGHT falls on the Kibble Palace and against its interior backdrop of elegant pillars and palm trees, a slim young man undergoes his necessary transition from hard-drinking Eastcheap hellraiser to warrior, monarch, and representative of God on earth.

Henry IV - Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

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Henry V - Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

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Shakespeare’s twin Henry IV plays – now condensed into a single, intense two-and-a-half-hour evening by Bard In The Botanics director Gordon Barr – and their sequel Henry V, presented outside in the gardens in an ambitious three-hour production by Jennifer Dick, are perhaps the greatest dramas ever written about nation-building and leadership in a pre-democratic age.

Written some 50 years after Sir David Lindsay’s great Satire Of The Three Estates, Shakespeare’s plays contain none of Lindsay’s soul-searching about the place of the common people in the nation’s counsels.

Yet elsewhere, their concerns are strikingly similar. Both playwrights imagine a young monarch led astray by sensual pleasures who has to find his way back to virtue.

And in Gordon Barr’s ingenious and impressive three-handed version, the story of young Prince Hal’s emergence as king is told through a tight focus on the relationship between Hal and his two father-figures, the tormented and conscience-stricken King Henry IV – who usurped the crown from Richard II – and the Eastcheap drunkard and blowhard, the immensely fat Sir John Falstaff.

Barr’s version benefits from a fine, beautifully spoken performance from James Ronan as Hal, and a deeply moving and brilliantly insightful double turn from Kirk Bage as both Henry IV and Falstaff, two contrasting yet somehow entwined aspects of the English psyche and they receive impressive support from Tom Duncan as all the other characters, including Hal’s great rival and alter ego, the young Northumbrian Harry Hotspur.

Jennifer Dick’s staging of Henry V, by contrast, is both more ambitious and more diffuse, a huge pageant of a show in which members of the main company are joined by almost a dozen additional actors from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to create a spectacular large-scale staging of Shakespeare’s great battle-cry of a play, about Henry V’s great victory over France at Agincourt.

Dick’s central idea – linked to the current commemorations of 1914 – is to frame the performance of Henry V as part of a speech day at a Glasgow school in 1915, so the makeshift mediaeval costumes often slip away, to reveal the nurses’ capes and khaki uniforms of those who marched away in 1914.

What emerges is an evening of tremendously vivid images and set-pieces, punctuated by a near-full-length performance of Shakespeare’s text that often seems ovewhelmed both by the sheer weight of the speeches, and by the strange patriotic mixture of exhilaration and revulsion with which this play views the savagery of war.

The show boasts a passionate, unruly Hal in Daniel Campbell, though, and a gorgeous Princess Catherine in Amandine Vincent. And there are moments – notably the long two minutes’ silence in which the cast mourn the dead of Agincourt – that burn in the memory and touch the very essence of this mighty and terrible national pageant of a play.

Seen on 18.07.14/19.07.14

• Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 2 August.