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Darkness beckons

William Shakespeare's version of a corrupt and diseased 15th-century England is depicted as having distinctly modern political parallels. Rex Gibson reports

King Henry IV: Part Two

By William Shakespeare

Bristol Old Vic

The design and costumes of the Old Vic production securely anchor the play in the 15th century, but for director Gareth Machin the action happens in a kind of limbo as all the characters wait for the king to die. Machin sees King Henry 1V: Part 2 as much closer to our own time than Part 1. "In that first play, Hotspur's presence shows that an older world of chivalry still lingers. But in Part 2 Shakespeare presents a much darker world, diseased and corrupt."

Machin identifies the elements of that more sombre England. "The Gloucestershire recruiting scene is often thought of as extremely funny, but it is desperately bleak. Feeble, Wart and the rest know they won't survive. They are compelled to go and fight."

It's the same with the tavern. Cheerfulness has given way to joyless humour. "In Part 1 the tavern was a world of japes, good fellowship and fun," he says. "Now it has become shadowy and unpleasant. The presence of Doll Tearsheet shows it's now a bawdy house, as well as a drinking place."

For Machin the humanity of Part 1 is leached out and Part 2 is absurdist in its mood and tone. "It's very contemporary, very politically relevant - the most modern of the history plays."

He points out that for much of the play King Henry justifies his seizure of the throne on religious grounds, "But in the end his faith deserts him and you see the politician behind the monarch".

However, Machin does not wish to force specific contemporary parallels on the play. When the dying Henry advises his son to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels", it's up to the audience to make whatever connection they choose. They don't have to think of George Bush.

And is Prince Hal a hypocrite? Machin does not wish to judge. "He's very youthful in Part 1, but it's clear that now he's lost his way. He's suspended between the worlds of the court and the tavern. The playing is over and he's caught in a trap. But his love for his father is greater than that for Falstaff". For Machin, Hal's desire to win the love and respect of his father makes Sir John Falstaff's rejection inevitable, but incredibly difficult. "Hal isn't callous or cold. It's Falstaff who forces the confrontation. He traps Hal into making him publicly reject him when he'd rather do it in private."

King Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2 Box office: 0117 987 7877Aftershow Talkaround, November 26 Telephone the box office for free admission

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