It says something when an actor as gifted with language as Michael Gambon can bring an entire house to edgy, quiet submission with a scene requiring his character, the voluble Sir John Falstaff, to be stunned into silence. But that’s the climax toward which Nicholas Hytner’s marathon, six-hour staging of “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2” builds, taking an entirely engaged audience with it. The moment — Falstaff’s dismissal at the hands of his once-beloved Hal (Matthew Macfadyen) — will not quickly be forgotten in a production at once beautiful and crushing — and not to be missed.
Expectations ran unusually high for these plays, and not just because Hytner two years ago launched his National Theater regime with a first-rate version of “Henry V,” to which these two Shakespeare histories are the prequel. The choice of text aside, there was also the pairing of the capacious, insatiable Gambon as appetite-driven Falstaff, an outsized character at last partnered with a scarcely less anarchic actor, whom Hytner first approached about the part five years ago.
The artistic marriage pays the expected aesthetic dividends, but even better is the news that these “Henrys” aren’t merely the Michael Gambon show. Eloquently focused, paced and designed (the ravishing swatches of fabric are courtesy Mark Thompson), the occasion is itself Falstaffian: robust, deeply witty, unexpectedly poignant and every so often a tad overripe. Were Falstaff himself a theatergoer, he would be pleased.
The tendency, certainly in the U.S., is to mount Part 1 on its own, though Lincoln Center Theater scored a recent Tony-winning success with an adaptation that conflated both plays into one substantial evening. But how infinitely gratifying it is to see both texts performed (more or less) in full. The two works comment across one another in a saga swept up, at least initially, in a rabid embrace of life that comes to thematic fruition in Part 2 with a sweeping examination of death.
The mortality, in this case, isn’t merely literal, though it will embrace many of the principals by both plays’ end. It’s also the metaphoric death that happens when deep bonds are abruptly ruptured leaving little in their place, beyond Falstaff’s celebrated intimations of “chimes at midnight” and the onetime rapscallion Hal’s emergence as the military-minded Henry V of the ensuing play.
Hytner’s production is confident enough to embrace various moods and numerous narrative byways while never forgetting that this apparently most political of plays is, in fact, bruisingly domestic. Indeed, in its contrasting depictions of sons at cross-purposes with disinterested fathers or in thrall to available surrogates, Shakespeare unexpectedly tilts his cap toward, among other modern plays, “Death of a Salesman,” which itself thrives on the generational agon that restless Prince Hal knows all too well.
Rising film star Macfadyen (Darcy in the latest bigscreen “Pride and Prejudice”) is a revelation in this tricky role, giving a perf by turns affecting and slightly scary. He makes something vividly moving out of the playacting of this royal boy-man, whose roisterous antics never hide the fact that Hal walks an emotional precipice with the same difficulty with which he navigates the borders of Thompson’s planked set. (That’s just one cunning detail in Hytner’s staging.) Hal’s banter with Falstaff has a pleasing physicality, as if the younger man were forever jousting with his aging chum, and not just verbally.
Rhetorically, the two seem to get off on their volleys of insults, the badinage an exercise in accelerated one-upmanship that makes Hal’s eventual about-face that much harder to watch. Macfadyen, though, cleverly charts the incipient warrior, Henry, that lies somewhere within hail-fellow Hal, a prankster who falls readily into the rough-and-tumble of life with Falstaff but stumbles (literally) on his way into a crucial encounter with his distant father, King Henry IV (David Bradley).
If the plays work anew as filial inquiry — even Hotspur (a commanding David Harewood) seems to some fundamental degree to exist apart from his sonorously spoken father, the Earl of Northumberland (Jeffery Kissoon) — they nevertheless exist within a context of civil war in which the antics of Falstaff & Co. look particularly larky set against the images of devastation that frame Part 1. (One could do without the choric lamentations, however, which seem to have strayed in from the Vanessa Redgrave “Hecuba”).
And for all the frivolity (Adrian Scarborough doubles impressively as a brisk Poins and, later, a scene-stealingly comical Justice Silence), Part 2 rarely ceases to evoke lingering shadows. That awareness is there in the gasping final utterances of the dying king, who makes peace with his son if not with a kingdom sick, in his words, “with evil blows.” The esteemed John Wood appears well into Part 2 as a sprightly Justice Shallow, whose beaming countenance darkens with an awareness that all his old acquaintances are gone.
The most complicated reckoning is, inevitably, that made by Gambon’s Falstaff, who with his feathered cap and beanbag paunch resembles a Frans Hals painting come to life. The actor’s gait perceptibly slowing as the plays continue, Gambon never sentimentalizes the part even when Mistress Quickly, among others, does just that. Ribald and ebullient, his Falstaff is also vain and opportunistic.
We mourn with Falstaff when his best friend is in effect stolen from him as lowlife-loving Hal becomes hardened, high-minded, newly crowned Henry V. And as Gambon stands doubled over with grief, a hand across that loving face, we see the extinction of the eternal child in a majestically boyish Falstaff who, to his detriment, never learned to be a man.