It is a curiosity that in the Shakespeare history play Henry IV the title role is not the one people really want to see. It’s not that Shakespeare’s king is lacking in any way, it’s just that in the plays the Bard reveals one of his great creations: Falstaff.
It is perhaps telling that, and this is in no way disrespectful of those taking other parts, the big name in the current RSC production of Henry IV parts I and II, touring the country, is Antony Sher. The theatrical knight is taking on the role, obviously, of Falstaff.
“Quite simply, he is one of Shakespeare’s greatest parts,” says Sher. “He is a truly astonishing creation by Shakespeare. The Lord of Misrule, he is a completely subversive character and incredibly modern. He is like the ultimate anti-hero.”
It is an incredible part to play in one of the plays that people may remember from school as being at the less penetrable end of the Shakespearean spectrum.
In Part I, King Henry’s crown is under threat from enemies within and without his kingdom and he prepares for war. In Henry IV Part II, the king’s health is fading and his son Hal must choose between duty and loyalty to an old friend in the final of Shakespeare’s History Plays. In each of the plays Falstaff is a side part but a central role.
Sher says: “Everyone in the play is fighting for their lives, the stakes are very high, people are fighting and dying and in the middle you have this incredibly subversive character and yet he appears to be a character that the audience love.
“He is a thief, an alcoholic, entirely disreputable, grossly overweight, he should be a deeply unattractive figure and yet Shakespeare somehow manages to make one of his most attractive figures.”
Directed by Sher’s partner and the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, the production, visiting Bradford’s Alhambra theatre next week, has received glowing reviews.
Sher, knighted for his services to acting and writing, first worked for the RSC over 30 years ago. He has since won plaudits and awards for roles in The Merchant of Venice, Othello and the title role in Richard III.
The South African-born actor says: “The production has been pleasingly well received and audiences are coming in their droves and are really enjoying it. There is nothing quite like having a success in a Shakespeare play.
“If you are a classical actor, as I have been for most of my career, you have this list of the great parts you are hoping to play at some stage and each time one comes along, you are very aware that you are following in some famous footsteps. and the question that always nags away at you is ‘are you going to be up to it?’. That is particularly the case with a part like Falstaff.”
Falstaff is the part in Henry IV and has been tackled by Richard Griffiths, Simon Russell Beale, Ralph Richardson and Orson Welles. It is breathtaking to see the number of great actors who line up to play what ought to have been an also-ran part.
“It’s a lot of fun to be on the receiving end of the audience’s response to him,” says Sher. “With Shakespeare’s villains – and some of these men are really monsters, he makes them enjoyable for the audience. So it is with Falstaff, even though he is completely disreputable, he pulls the same trick of making you, the audience, love him.”
Bringing his Falstaff to Bradford is, says Sher, an important thing to do. “For an actor, it is an incredibly stimulating experience to take something out on tour like this,” he says.
“Going on tour gives you an opportunity to really connect with an audience. It is fascinating to see how the show changes from city to city. Each city we visit has an audience that reflects the nature of the place and seeing the different reactions in each city is fascinating.”
Sher is also evangelical about the work of the Bard being brought to life for audiences of all ages. With the History Plays, there is a certain trepidation on the part of some audiences, purely because the first introduction to them often comes at school and is sometimes an introduction that doesn’t really light a fire in them for Shakespeare.
He says: “I think that Shakespeare has not been taught well at a lot of schools and that puts people off for life. If they could just come and see it live and see what you can do with it, it is so much more powerful than studying it in a dry, academic way. We have had excellent reviews across the board and audiences appear to love it. Seeing it live in a production like this is the best way to see it come to life.”