The best Falstaffs are generally the more philosophical ones. We think of Shakespeare’s great fat knight as rollicking, but in truth we see him do little of that sort of thing; he isn’t built for rollicking, after all. Most of the high jinks in and around the Boar’s Head tavern are led by his surrogate son, Prince Hal. Falstaff’s appeal for us is rooted not in his activities themselves, but in his attitude to them. He is bluntly self-serving, never missing a beat as he skips from lie to lie in his Dionysiac self-justifications.
This is the Falstaff played excellently by Antony Sher in Gregory Doran’s RSC revival of both parts of Henry IV. He could be fibbing the corona of curly white hair right off his ageing face, but he does so with winning fluency and always with a serene smile. Even on the battlefield he is unflappable . . . utterly craven, but unflappable. And so Hal’s final disavowal of him at the younger man’s coronation as King Henry V – “I know thee not, old man” – acquires its poignancy. The smile falters; when it returns it is glassy and unconvincing. When Falstaff tries to gloss matters with “I shall be sent for soon at night,” his ruin is complete: he has forgotten how to lie plausibly.
The plays are both necessary to each other, a complementary diptych, and yet sit oddly together. The rebellions against Henry IV, particularly the one covered in Part 2, jar with the elegiac tone of the later episodes with both Falstaff and the king himself. In some ways we are watching the passing of an age, a disordered era of which Henry IV and Falstaff each personify one aspect. If Doran does not focus on an overarching national narrative, he nevertheless gets the most out of individual sequences; consequently, one hardly stops to ponder why, say, all the dynamic set-pieces are in Part 1 but all the ones that have passed into our collective cultural memory are in Part 2.
Foremost among these are Falstaff’s nostalgic reunion with his old comrade Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies cameoing for all he’s worth, accompanied by Jim Hooper resembling a geriatric Tintin as cousin Silence), and the episode in which Hal tries on the crown sitting on his father’s sickbed. This scene showcases both Jasper Britton’s anguish as Henry IV that his seizure of the throne has brought none of the improvements he had hoped for, not to himself but to the country, and is the crucial moment in Alex Hassell’s portrayal of Hal’s reform.
It is harder than it looks to get the full breadth of Hal from tavern capers to battlefield valour and court dedication, and Hassell manages it without straining. In contrast, Trevor White as Harry Hotspur in Part 1, the valorous rebel whom the king professes to prefer to his own son, is too flippant and gung-ho and only grows more so, such that by the climactic battle he is cackling like a sinister redneck in a slasher movie. But ultimately the plays tessellate out from the central triangle of King Henry, Prince Hal and – on the hypotenuse, naturally – Falstaff, and Doran’s productions (which transfer to the Barbican in London from November) do full justice where it matters.