William Shakespeare adapted by Jane Railton
Sat 18th October to Sat 25th October
Rebellion stalks the land. The teenage heir to the throne rebels against stern paternal authority, whilst former political allies plot the overthrow of a cold and calculating king. But at the heart of the play is the most outrageous rebel of them all: Jack Falstaff. Lazy, corrupt and lecherous, Shakespeare's anarchical fat knight is the witty and charismatic companion of Prince Hal, the wayward Prince of Wales. When the country threatens to erupt into civil war will the young prince be ready to answer the call of duty?
Drawing extracts from three of Shakespeare's most popular history plays (Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V) his Sonnets, and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, this new adaptation places centre stage the unforgettable character of Falstaff in an exciting fusion of high drama and robust comedy.
The Criterion is nothing if not ambitious. Here it is, 20 miles up the road from the birthplace of the Bard and the professional theatre dedicated to the preservation of his works. And here is Jane Railton, an upstart new Elizabethan from Coventry, conflating two of Shakespeare’s best-known history plays, slipping in an extract from another, throwing in some Holinshed with a line or two from the sonnets before adding a scene of her own.
What does she achieve by it?
Something that keeps the audience engrossed and entertained for three hours. She also manages to make some of us think again about the bibulous and lecherous if loveable old rogue who gives his name to this adaptation. Jack Falstaff has always been a character instantly recognisable to those of us who have spent some time in taverns being entertained by the ample-girthed old boy holding forth at the bar.
He is well spoken (if a little slurred) yet able to mingle with all classes. Unlike Prince Hal, whose company he cultivates, he is not just slumming it for a while. He may be fat, lazy, boastful and dishonest, but he is held in affection by the lower orders – even by those to whom he owes money. And it is among them that he finally breathes his last, broken by his ultimate rejection by the calculating prince.
Shakespeare always had to tread a fine line between exploring the notion of kingship while never going far enough to upset the “uneasy” head wearing the crown. After all, he had to ensure that his own head remained attached to his shoulders. There are no such constraints on Jane Railton. By re-shuffling Henry IV parts one and two she can re-focus on Falstaff and his relationship with the future king, contrasting the ruthlessness of one with the warmth of the other – his contempt for the notion of courtly honour and his love of life.
None of this would have been achievable without the stalwart efforts of an evidently inspired and dedicated cast. Pete Meredith seems to grow into the part of the Prince, dissolute and mischievous when it pleases him, cold and calculating when it suits. And Sean Glock gives a splendidly demented performance as the hot-headed Hotspur, enemy of diplomacy, lover of death. “Die all, die merrily,” he says with wide-eyed abandon at one point.
With such a large canvas to cover, it is inevitable that many of the actors take on more than one part. Pete Gillam gives the Earl of Northumberland a believable Geordie accent before retuning the voice slightly north of the border to play Douglas as the Alex Salmond of his day. Peter Brooks, meanwhile, gives us a clipped and starchy Lord Chief Justice before slipping into a resonant and lilting Welsh accent as the original windbag Owen Glendower.
From doubling up to double acts: it’s not just Falstaff and the Prince who play off each other. Keith Railton and Pete Bagley wring every drop of comic potential from the cameo roles of the ancient Justices Shallow and Silence.
But there is only one Jack Falstaff. Craig Shelton dominates the stage for much of the night, giving a performance that glows even brighter than Bardolph’s nose. His corpulent frame dominates a set that manages to double up as bawdy house and court. Battleground, too, at one point. After Hotspur has died none too merrily, it is Falstaff who brazenly brags that he has killed him, having “fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock”. It’s an outrageous claim, but then he’s an outrageous character. For a modern western audience, this ultimate anti-hero’s puncturing of the mediaeval notion of honour strikes a chord. Even more so his philosophy, which might be summed up as “live all, live merrily”.
* Jack Falstaff, adapted from the works of William Shakespeare by Jane Railton, is at the Criterion until October 25. No performance on Sunday.
A GOOD NIGHT WITH THE "FAT KNIGHT"
When push comes to shove, what matters more - friendship, or your country? Being true to yourself, or trimming to the course of whatever cause is in the ascendancy? That was a subtext to Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays, dealing with the turbulent years of the early fifteenth century and the rise of the young Henry,Duke of Lancaster - Prince Hal, the future Henry V.
In Jack Falstaff , Jane Railton's ambitious adaptation for the Criterion Theatre, it was very much to the fore, as an energetic cast picked over the bones of Hal's relationship with the extraordinary, mercurial "fat knight", Sir John Falstaff. Lazy, dishonest, boastful and
lecherous, Falstaff (played with gusto by a more or less convincingly supersized Craig Shelton) dominated the proceedings, and to begin with seemed able to lead Pete Meredith's puppyish Hal and the rest of his coterie by the nose.
But rebellion stalks the land, and soon Hal, breaking
free from his "ill angel", is forced face to face with the realities of his station, "putting on the shape of a new man" to shore up his father's shaky hold on the throne. Trev Clarke's Henry Bolingbroke was a nicely convincing character study, his increasing introspection and melancholy illustrating all too clearly why "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown".
And Falstaff? As the army moves north to face the rebels, Sean Glock's charismatic Hostpur in their
vanguard, he bids a touching farewell to Nicole Cortese's delightful, quick-witted bawd Doll Tearsheet and the regulars of the Boar's Head Tavern, determined- as befits a man for whom discretion is very much the better part of valour - to have a "good war". This is preferably one with as little fighting as possible, for among his other "virtues", Sir John is a frightful coward.
Teaming up with wily, nostalgic old friend Justice Shallow (Keith Railton on fine comic form in the play's best scene), he assembles a ragtag army of peasants, his scene admirably stolen from under his nose by Nicole Cortese's dumb-show simpleton Thomas Wart,press-ganged into as potentially life-limiting a career 'choice' as any you're likely to see.
It all ends well, of course, for Hal. And badly for Sir John, cast adrift as a hopeless reprobate by his now pious, and regal, former partner in crime. Is the endearing knight, true to his dubious principles, any worse than the nobles who twist in the wind, back-stab and manoeuvre for position? Possibly not - his scornful laugh from beyond the grave at the play's end suggesting he would have none of Hal's new-found gravitas to all eternity if it was at the cost of being true to himself.
Another high quality production from a hardworking Criterion cast and crew, then, They combined under Railton's snappy direction to keep the action moving in a performance seemingly imbued with the life exuding from every pore of Falstaff's corpulent frame - a force of nature if ever there was one. It's good to see the Criterion continuing to tackle productions on this scale -
and pulling them off so successfully.