Henry IV and Henry V
Both at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Until August 2
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Shakespeare’s telling, in two parts, of the story of Henry IV is seldom seen on the Scottish stage. It is a bold choice for a notoriously underfunded festival such as Bard in the Botanics. All the more so when one considers that this production has been abridged and assembled from Henry IV parts 1 and 2 by the festival’s artistic director Gordon Barr, and performed by a cast of just three actors.
Barr’s perfectly structured adaptation ebbs and flows between regal conflict and comedy for a captivating two hours and 10 minutes (including interval). Played in the gorgeous Kibble Palace glasshouse, it features Kirk Bagé (alternating masterfully between the troubled King Henry IV and the corpulent rogue Sir John Falstaff), James Ronan (Prince Henry, later Henry V) and Tom Duncan (the rebellious Hotspur, the reprobate Ned Poins and the lawyerly Earl of Westmorland).
Designed minimalistically by Barr, the production combines 21st-century costume with a few nods to period garb. There is even a slightly homoerotic element to the relationship between Prince Henry and Ned Poins. Wearing, and sometimes not wearing, jeans and vests, the dissolute, but handsome, young men seem to flirt with more than danger.
Whilst the trio work together superbly as an ensemble, Bagé is the standout actor of the piece. By turns bleakly disappointed in his son and reluctant to go to war, as King Henry, and energetically and hilariously raffish, as Falstaff, his quick changing performance is an absolute delight.
Over the years, the Bard in the Botanics has attempted many ambitious adaptations. This wonderfully crafted, brilliantly paced Henry IV must, surely, be among the best.
If Henry IV impresses greatly, his successor Henry V, does not. The drama of Henry’s conquest of France has become a byword for English military patriotism, thanks in no small measure to Laurence Olivier’s famous 1944 film. Sadly, hard though it tries, director Jennifer Dick’s production does not do it justice.
Cognisant of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, this staging presents Henry V as a play-within-a-play during the 1915 prize giving and fete of the Gardenhill Academy high school in Glasgow. In between the headmasters’ best wishes to former pupils who are bound for the slaughter on the continent, and laments for those already fallen, the pupils and staff perform Shakespeare’s play.
This is a perfectly reasonable conceit, and one realised beautifully in Giggy Argo’s impressively detailed set designs and Carys Hobbs’s convincing school show-style costumes, complete with wooden swords. The problems come in the casting.
Decidedly uneven casts are a perennial issue for this festival, but it’s been a while since I have seen a production flounder so badly on account of the lack of decent actors. Dick’s school play idea quickly begins to look like cover for weak acting.
The better actors (Robert Elkin as the Boy Chorus, Keith Macpherson as Pistol) play it straight, whilst many of the others seem to be performing as if they were, indeed, amateur high school players.
I would rather go into medieval battle at Agincourt than have to hear the great Saint Crispen’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) screamed to destruction again by Daniel Campbell, an actor who, like too many of his colleagues here, is palpably out of his depth.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 27, 2014
© Mark Brown