Looking after number one

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Falstaff is usually seen as primarily a comic creation, but as Heather Neill finds out, a new production looks beyond this

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

Olivier In rep until July 2. Tel: 020 7452 3000 for tickets www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Falstaff is the great comic creation who has a leading role in both plays.

Hytner is vociferous in his condemnation of "150 years of sentimentality" in the character's treatment by academics, reaching an "absurd zenith" in the work of Harold Bloom. "The ludicrous sentimentality overlooks what Falstaff does. Forget for the moment what good company he is, how gloriously witty. Does he ever do anything for anybody? No: he is out only for himself. Look at his behaviour at Shrewsbury (the battle in Part1). Of course, he is brilliant, inventive and subversive there, but he betrays Hal twice, first by refusing to lend him his sword, then by undermining the importance of the killing of Hotspur. As the prince says, this is not a time to jest.

"Every single reference to the time when Hal will be king is in relation to making Falstaff richer, his life more pleasant. It's not about Hal. The new king's rejection ("I know thee not...") is brutal, horrendous, but Falstaff's betrayal of Hal is as grievous as Hal's betrayal of him." Hytner does not intend, however, to down-play the attractiveness of Falstaff (played by Michael Gambon), but to make clear the inadequacy of looking only at his wit. "It's as if Shakespeare set himself an apparently impossible challenge: how to make irresistibly likeable for three hours a character who is consistently unforgivable."

Death, desease and old age are constant themes of the play. "The dying king, Henry IV, is aware of the impossibility of the success of his political ambition and he hopes for better under his son who is not tainted, as he himself is, with the sin of regicide". He fears that Hal will not be up to the job, but at least, as Hytner says, "by the time his father dies the prince has the best legitimate claim to the throne". The two are reconciled just before the king's death. This play features a wonderful variety of people in English society - and, despite the medieval setting, Shakespeare is writing about his own time - from the Court to the poor souls recruited by Falstaff via the comfortable Warwickshire justices, Shallow and Silence.

"There is no denying that Shakespeare was conservative ideologically, petrified of disorder and therefore alarmed by threats to authority."

Nevertheless, Hytner says he was artistically sceptical of the exercise of power without restraint. "Look at the people with comedy names. They all have tremendous dignity. You feel that this is a writer who understands and has empathy for those made vulnerable by the exercise of authority. But he never suggests there is a viable political alternative".

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