While it’s true that William Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much modern attention as his comedies and tragedies, his ability to dramatise the lives of British rulers garnered the playwright much praise in his day. In Henry IV Part 1 & 2, the expected wit and politics of Shakespeare’s writing is only amplified by real royalty and warfare.
In reading these two plays, director Haki Pepo Olu Crisden say the similarities between Prince Hal (Tristan Entwistle) with his rise from wealthy scallywag to King Henry V and the pop culture hero Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise. As such, Crisden transferred the complicated political struggles between England, Scotland, and Wales from 400 years in the past forward to 400 years in the future where battles are fought in fighter jets and the consequences are intergalactic.
In Part 1, King Henry IV (Charles Mayer) grows uneasy as a group of rebels led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Alex Perritt) grow in disquiet and begin to challenge his leadership. This isn’t helped by his son’s insistence on carrying on with his unsavoury friends including the drunkard Jack Falstaff (Asalemo Tofete). The action culminates in the Battle of Shrewsbury where Prince Hal kills Henry Percy and takes the wind out of the sails of the rebels. Part 2 then turns its attention specifically on Prince Hal as he regains his honour and reputation in order to accept the crown after his father’s death. But the popular character of Falstaff has a vested interest in continuing his relationship with young Prince Hal and a large part of this second play includes his dalliances throughout England.
To bring this virtual futuristic world to life, a technical team used digital backgrounds for each character, pre-recorded fight sequences, and animated contextualising shots of alien metropolises and dualing war ships amongst the stars. These digital set elements, directed by Alex Perritt, were particularly impressive and greatly contributed to the world-building around an otherwise flat screen interface. The detail of using virtual backgrounds to “place” characters in the same space was clever as was turning page characters into R2D2-like robots (voiced by Camille Tovey). Added musical direction and composition from Paul Bremen, in the battle scenes particularly, recreated the sense of grandeur that movies like Star Wars create for their worlds and stories.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of translating live performance to a digital platform is conveying the emotional connection between the characters and the audience without a physical proximity. The cast were admirable in the more intimate moments of these two productions for developing close intercharacter dynamics and earnestly portraying these relationships on screen. In particular, Perritt and Angie Gachomo had a handful of sweet moments as Henry Percy and Lady Percy in Part 1 while Mayer and Entwistle shared a remarkably moving confrontation between father and son on King Henry IV’s deathbed in Part 2.
Other stand-out performances came from Tofete as the slippery Falstaff with his greedy, lying personality but big laugh and Susan Jordan’s Mistress Quickly as the hotel keeper who did well to create a sense of London’s rough streets stretching beyond her individual character.
Henry IV Part 1 & 2 as history plays are weighed heavy with characters and political contexts and connotations but overall, the story is a sweeping hero’s journey full of both bloody battles and bro-y banter. Imagining the action as an epic future conflict, Crisden creates a distance from historical detail that allows the characters’ constructions to shine through in the crystallised story of a young man burdened by vice and desire growing into himself and his obligations.
Henry IV Part 1 & 2 are streaming online from April 16th – 24th. For more information about live and recorded viewings, see Streamed Shakespeare’s website.
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