Last Saturday night saw my wife and me at the Roundhouse theatre in north London for a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It was, I thought, a reasonably good performance although King Henry himself did not dominate the stage in the way that a great actor can do. We saw Matthew Macfadyen playing Prince Hal (that is, Henry V before he became king) at the National Theatre in Henry IV Parts One and Two last year and thought he was outstandingly good. We are very keen to see him tackle the role as King.
On of the things about reading the reviews of performances of Shakespeare’s plays is that they rarely tell you if the play itself is any good. The actors are criticised without much criticism being directed at Shakespeare himself. Assuming that you can’t see all of them, it would be helpful to know which of his plays are most worthy of our time. Here are my thoughts based on the ones I’ve seen in the theatre (rather than just read or watched on TV). Note that for this reason, neither Hamlet nor Othello are on the list.
King Lear: The 1990 performance at the National Theatre with Brian Cox as Lear and Ian McKellen as Kent is widely felt to be one of the best of all. For me it remains the finest work of art I have ever experienced. Last year’s RSC production with McKellen in the role of Lear himself was much less impressive but still deeply effecting.
Henry V: The performance on Saturday was only average but the greatness of the play is hard to disguise. This is a searingly honest portrayal of both the horrors and glory of war.
Richard III: The famous hunchback is one of art’s darkest villains, whatever resemblance he may or may not have to the historical king. Again, the performance I saw, at the Young Vic, was not one of the best and needed a better actor in the starring role to dominate the proceedings.
Macbeth: Simon Russell Beale took the lead last year in London. He usually plays nice people and his casting against type as the man corrupted by his wife and a desire for power was inspired. I found the play itself less convincing because I couldn’t believe just how evil Macbeth becomes. Killing off your political rivals is one thing, child murder is quite another.
Richard II: The message of this play is about the consequences of rebellion. In recent history, it has been most commonly referred to when considering the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. The coup against her plunged her party into over a decade of hopeless strife. But even Kevin Spacey in the lead at the Old Vic could not disguise that Richard II himself is not Shakespeare’s most convincing character.
Much Ado About Nothing: The RSC production of 2006 was brilliantly cast and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. The play itself is genuinely funny and definitely worth seeing.
Henry IV Parts One and Two: If the best bits of each were merged into a single play, this would be one of the greats. In two parts, it slightly outstays its welcome. We saw Michael Gambon’s Falstaff at the National Theatre, but he was completely thrown into shadow by Matthew Macfadyen’s Prince Hal. Contains what is probably the rudest joke in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
Twelfth Night: Has its moments, but the humour is too cruel for my taste and the characters unsympathetic. As in many of the comedies, the subplot is better than the plot. Saw it at Stratford in 1993.
The Tempest: One of the last of the plays to be written with some truly opaque verse. The production at the Roundhouse that I saw about five years ago was very good if played a bit too much for the rather humourless laughs that the play provides.
Measure for Measure: The National Theatre production of 2004 (if I recall the year correctly), could scarcely have been bettered but the play itself is rather lightweight. The plot is too dark to be a comedy and the National’s production made a virtue of this by setting it in a fascist state.
Coriolanus: This play is really not very good. My wife and I saw it shortly after we met and it was another year before we could admit to each other how poor it was. Avoid.
While we were talking about this, my wife said she would add the Comedy of Errors (seen at the Globe in 2002) to the list of great plays and Anthony & Cleopatra (seen at Stratford some time in the 1990s with a stella cast), to the list of the bad ones. Anthony, in particular, spends an inordinately long time about dying.
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