Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Player Kings proves that Shakespeare can be funny

Plus: what a wise move of Eugene O’Neill to die before Long Day’s Journey Into Night was published

Ian McKellen as the noisy, swaggering dissembler Falstaff in Player Kings. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Play-goers, beware. Director Robert Icke is back in town, and that means a turgid four-hour revival of a heavyweight classic with every actor screaming, bawling, weeping, howling and generally overdoing it. But here’s a surprise. Player Kings, Icke’s new version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is a dazzling piece of entertainment and the only exaggerated performance comes from Sir Ian McKellen who plays Falstaff, quite rightly, as a noisy, swaggering dissembler.

Those who imagine ‘Shakespearean comedy’ to be an oxymoron will be pleasantly surprised

Small details deliver large dividends. The tavern scenes are set in an east London hipster bar with chipped wooden tables and exposed brickwork. Richard Coyle’s Henry IV has been costumed to resemble the chain-smoking George VI. He first appears in tailored tweeds like a 1930s country gent. When war breaks out, he changes into full naval costume. In some of the final scenes, stricken with lung disease, he takes to his bed wearing a red dressing-gown like Noël Coward.

The cast are on top form. Toheeb Jimoh is a fine Hal, charismatic, easy on the eye, fully aware of his sexual allure but with a slyness underlying the charm. Clare Perkins moves expertly between comedy and pathos as Mistress Quickly, who acts tough in public but can’t conceal her fondness for the idle, sponging Falstaff. Perkins is one of the finest comedians you’ll see on stage. Shaven-headed Samuel Edward-Cook plays Hotspur as a twitchy, nervy psycho who probably belongs in a padded cell. And Robin Soans delivers a masterclass in vacuous rhetoric as Justice Shallow, who has nothing to say but, even so, can’t stop saying it. In this production, even the bores are magnificent.

McKellen’s Falstaff is a paunchy old rascal, a self-proclaimed hero who boasts of his exploits on the battlefield but has no qualms about robbing the dead. By joining the two plays together, Icke shows us Falstaff’s misspent life in full. In the first half we meet the drunken prankster who mocks the concept of military honour. In part two, he publishes his memoirs and arrives at the launch party dressed like a D-Day veteran in a maroon beret with a breast full of medals. When the party ends, he makes a swift exit with all the unopened bottles hidden in his wheelchair.

The finale comes as a heart-breaking shock as he greets the newly crowned Henry V only to be spurned and sent into exile. Falstaff was expecting a lavish pension to keep him in drink for the rest of his days and the terrible moment of rejection, ‘I know thee not, old man’, seems far worse than a personal betrayal. It’s also a financial catastrophe from which Falstaff never recovers. He dies bankrupt and alone, ‘babbling o’ green fields’. He seems like a contemporary figure – the cancelled comedian, defunded by the Establishment, starved of his livelihood, and abandoned by his friends. This an amazing act of reclamation.

Shakespeare’s history plays often falter or descend into tedious mannerisms. But not here. Everything moves at a decent clip. The battle scenes are terse and engaging. The drunken larks in the tavern are genuinely funny. Those who imagine ‘Shakespearean comedy’ to be an oxymoron will be pleasantly surprised. This show is full of laughs as rich and ample as Falstaff’s belly.

Anyone planning to see Long Day’s Journey Into Night should be warned that the characters are the most malicious, overbearing and charmless group of narcissists ever inflicted on the playgoing public. We meet the Tyrones, a family of wealthy, privileged misfits who gather in their summer house to booze and bicker their way through a horrible 24-hour get-together.

The sons, Jamie and Edmund, are idle, talentless, unemployable alcoholic deadbeats who can’t find girlfriends and who resent their boorish dad. The elder boy, Jamie, wants to work in the theatre even though he has no love for the profession. Edmund is likely to die of tuberculosis because his father won’t pay for a decent doctor. Their crabbed and lonely mother, Mary, struggles to cope with an obsessive habit that involves late-night visits to the medicine cabinet. No prizes for guessing what her secret is.

The writer died before the script was published. Wise move.

The dominant character, James Tyrone (whose name carries echoes of ‘tyrant’, obviously), is a bullying, misanthropic control-freak who compliments his wife by praising her obesity. Brian Cox captures this gruff and friendless ogre very well, but the play is an unbearable torment.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is set in a cheerless grey bungalow with brand new chairs that seem to have come from Ikea. But it’s hard to know whether the action is taking place now or in the past. James and his elder son wear drab Primark casuals. Edmund sports a three-piece suit from the 1950s and moaning Mary wafts about in an embroidered blue kaftan that looks distinctly Victorian. The writer, Eugene O’Neill, died before the script was published. Wise move.