Player Kings – Noël Coward Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Robert Icke

With a title that alludes to a character in Hamlet, Robert Icke’s production of Player Kings is a mash-up of the two parts of Henry IV, William Shakespeare’s stirring coming-of-age saga, which tracks the progress of the heir to the throne, Prince Henry (Hal), from wastrel to warrior. Its themes are timeless and universal.

King Henry (Richard Coyle) appears with regalia not dissimilar from that seen at the coronation of King Charles III, as Icke gives an immediate signal that no opportunity to link the play to the modern world will be missed. Henry’s grip on the throne is tenuous, with descendants of his deposed predecessor gaining momentum, but how he wishes that he had a son to match the valiant Hotspur (Samuel Edward-Cook), that of his adversary. Instead, his own oldest son is absent, attending the “court” of Sir John Falstaff, a battle-hardened retired soldier, who is set on growing old disgracefully in the bawdy ale houses of East London.

The jewel in Player Kings’ crown is youthful octogenarian Ian McKellen’s marvellous Falstaff. As written, the character is truly ridiculous and McKellen goes flat out to squeeze every drop of pitiable absurdity from him, knowing that, in these plays more than any others, Shakespeare connects comedy to drama with absolute precision.

Toheb Jimoh’s Hal is angry and petulant, as if holding off his inevitable accession. But this is not a gullible kid who simply falls for Falstaff’s boasts, exaggerations and lies. He is fully aware that, while he joins in the boozing, whoring and pranking, his heritage sets him apart. On stage together, McKellen and Jimoh generate magical chemistry, lighting sparks off each other.

Running at well over three hours, including one interval, this could have become a hard slog and, very briefly, Icke’s production gets bogged down in 15th Century politics. However, mostly, it skips lightly over them, leaving scene-setting factual details to appear occasionally as surtitles. Using minimal sets, designer Hildegard Bechtler opts for varied 20th Century costumes and the staging relies on hand-drawn curtains at scene changes. The overriding mood is inflamed much by dim, atmospheric lighting, designed by Lee Curran. The climax of the first half is the Battle of Shrewsbury, staged with long shadows, gunshots and explosions. What is lost in historical accuracy is made up for in dramatic intensity and Icke tops it off with a wonderful coup de théâtre.

The second half is more subdued and reflective, giving it the potential to feel like an anticlimax. However, rich characterisations save this production from that fate and foundations laid down in raucous earlier scenes add power and poignancy to the Bard’s melancholic study of ageing and renewal.

Popularised by star casting, revivals of Shakespeare plays in commercial theatres seem to be going stronger than ever before. Player Kings certainly sets a high bar for those that follow.

Runs until 22 June 2024

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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