“Player Kings” at Noël Coward Theatre

Neil Dowden in the West End
15 April 2024

Robert Icke has made his name creating radical reinterpretations of classic drama, such as his multi-award-winning production of Oresteia, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, and Oedipus (which finally arrives in London in the autumn, starring Mark Strong and Lesley Manville). His shows have become events. But for Player Kings (his adaptation of Henry IV Parts 1&2 into one play, directed by himself), the biggest draw is undoubtedly Sir Ian McKellen playing Sir John Falstaff for the first time as he approaches 85. And while this version is not as revelatory as some of Icke’s best work, McKellen does not disappoint with a superbly rounded performance as the fat knight – Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


The show runs for about three and three-quarter hours (including one interval) but this is still substantially shorter than staging the entirety of both parts of Henry IV – with Icke cutting some of the politicking (the Welsh rebel leader Glendower is omitted, for example), and shortening the latter part especially. The first part is the stronger play – with its riotous revelry around the Boar’s Head Tavern, Eastcheap in the City of London, tense scenes at court and in the north of England as rebellion grows, with a climactic showdown at the Battle of Shrewsbury – and Icke’s production fires on all cylinders.

The second, more elegiac part misses the white-hot energy of the now deceased Hotspur (for which the introduction of new characters Doll Tearsheet, Pistol, Shallow, and Silence doesn’t compensate), while the civil strife is less intense and the tavern scenes are less anarchic. With Icke cutting heavily including the roll-call of the rustic recruits and Prince John’s tricking of the insurgents, here it loses impetus – but the ending when the newly crowned Hal rejects his old drinking companion Falstaff packs an emotional punch. In fact, in a successful innovation, Icke then fast-forwards to the start of Henry V when Falstaff’s death is reported and the king prepares for war with France.

While this modern-dress version understates the political-historical context, it does focus clearly on the personal journey that Prince Hal makes to becoming King Henry V which involves complicated relationships with his actual father King Henry IV and his surrogate father Falstaff. It’s a process of maturing from adolescent high jinks while escaping his royal responsibilities (which he wasn’t born into) to accepting his adult destiny and the duties that come with it as future leader of the nation. In a sense, Hal is making a private rebellion against the authority of his father just as the Percys, Douglas et al. are rebelling against the crown. But when we see him here prove himself as heir apparent by casting off his juvenile lifestyle (including Falstaff) we also observe a ruthlessness that prefigures his martial exploits as Henry V.

Icke bookends the production with the coronation of the two Henrys – complete with all the regalia of ermine, orb, sceptre, and crown. This is most definitely a play about power – about the struggle to attain and retain it, but also the personal cost it exacts. As Henry IV says: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” As well as guilt from having deposed Richard II (which he is unable to assuage through a crusade to Jerusalem), Henry is plagued by worries about uprisings and his oldest son’s shenanigans, while also beset by increasing ill-health. On a split stage, we see the king and his aides in a fractious telephone parley with the Percys that ends in a declaration of war.


Richard Coyle (foreground).
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Meanwhile in the Boar’s Head, all hell is breaking loose as ‘king of thieves’ Falstaff presides over a hedonistic excess of drink, drugs, and sex as we see a bare-bummed Prince Hal snorting cocaine off the back of a chained man while raucous drum’n’bass blasts the auditorium. Hal is evidently sowing his wild oats (and breaking his father’s laws) – but we know it’s temporary because he tells us so in a soliloquy. And though there is evidently real mutual affection between him and Falstaff – as shown by the banter following the Gadshill robbery prank – there is also a cutting edge to Hal’s ridiculing of Falstaff’s cowardly lying – especially when they reverse role-play the relationship between Hal and his father. He is not blind to the moral deficiencies of Falstaff, who is here presented as an ageing gang leader gone to seed.

The Battle of Shrewsbury serves as a sort of apotheosis for both of them. In probably the most shocking moment in the show, Hal kills his rival Hotspur (whom King Henry wishes his son was more like) by stabbing him in the back after Hotspur has chivalrously spared his life. Falstaff, who as a recruiting officer has already accepted bribes from wealthier people to release them from conscription, robs a dead soldier on the battlefield, then after playing dead stabs Hotspur’s corpse to claim the “honour” of his slaying.

When we see Falstaff first after the interval he is milking his fictitious military heroism to the max. Icke ingeniously shows him – in a blazer adorned with medals lounging in a wheelchair – fronting a promotion for his own brand of sherry (or sack). When back on an army recruiting drive in Gloucestershire – where he meets up with his old friend Justice Shallow for some nostalgic recollections of their youth – he hurries back to London on hearing of the king’s demise in expectation of advancement from his beloved Hal. But Hal is now Henry, and having reconciled with his father just before his death, he is a changed man. His subsequent banishment of Falstaff from his person may seem cruel but here it seems inevitable.

Icke’s fluid production often features overlapping scenes where one character silently witnesses those who are incoming, sometimes pointing up parallels within the play. The seamlessness of the scene-changing is aided by Hildegard Bechtler’s simple but effective design which uses curtains to cover up part of the stage or reveal action in another part, with partially mobile brick walls forming the background (and with gaping holes during the battle).

McKellen reigns supreme on stage as the larger-than-life Falstaff, in a richly detailed performance that finely balances humour and pathos. As an unusually old Falstaff the vein of mortality in the play acquires an added resonance – he does physically eject Pistol when he becomes too aggressive towards Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, but then the two rival women have to help him to lie down and soothe him. Wearing a convincing fat suit, McKellen’s wheezing and waddling knight garbed in stained clothes may look as though he has just woken up with a hangover from the night before, but his wits are still sharp enough to get himself out of trouble. This is an unsentimental portrait of a hardened criminal – in some ways a nasty piece of work who has the shifty-eyed look of a conman on the make, or at least searching for his next drink – but with McKellen making the most of the comic vernacular prose he is tremendous fun.

Toheeb Jimoh also impresses as the developing Prince Hal who is slumming it for a while but always intends to take up his rightful place: we see his spontaneous high spirits turn into coolly pragmatic calculation. Richard Coyle gives a convincing account of King Henry IV being weighed down by the affairs of state while he is desperate for his son and heir to step up to the plate for a smooth succession. Samuel Edward-Cook does well in doubling as the brave but headstrong Hotspur and the brawling show-off Pistol. There is good support from Shakespearean veteran Joseph Mydell as the loyal and dutiful Lord Chief Justice and Robin Soans as the self-deluding, provincial Justice Robert Shallow who waxes lyrical about his youthful late nights in London. And countertenor Henry Jenkinson, a ghostly figure who meanders in and out of the action, sings hauntingly beautiful versions of “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee My Country” that contrast with the corruption of England we see on stage.