Following Richard II in Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy, which is adapted by the BBC in the four-part The Hollow Crown mini-series, Henry IV Part 1 finds the much older King Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) dealing with rebellion from the Percy family, led by Harry Percy, aka Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), and burdened with disappointment in his wayward eldest son and heir, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston), who spends his days cavorting with tavern folk and associating with the debauched knight, Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).
Not as plot-driven as other Shakespearean plays, Henry IV Part 1 sets up the characters for Part 2, and is notable for the wonderful performance of Beale as Falstaff, a comic relief anti-hero who dominates the story with his colourful language, disreputable behaviour, and larger-than-life personality. Conversely, Hiddleston, while physically befitting his princely role, only starts flexing his acting chops when Prince Hal, in a mocking play with Falstaff, portrays King Henry by brilliantly aping Iron’s distinctive growl and mannerisms. Armstrong is outstanding as haughty Hotspur—raging, scowling and inciting arguments with his own allies—and Irons makes the most of his surprisingly few lines.
Although the title of the play is Henry IV, the king has a rather small role in this instalment. The story, instead, focuses more on Prince Hal and Falstaff. Starting with shots of Hiddleston striding comfortably among grimy tavern goers, it is clear that the young prince, with his fine-features and tall, elegant frame, does not quite fit in. Although he delights in the company of commoners, Hal secretly acknowledges that he will soon have to resume his place as a royal. In the meantime, he enjoys teasing, pranking, and exchanging insults with Falstaff, a fat drunk, bald-faced liar, cowardly thief, and unsavoury opportunist who nevertheless dotes upon the prince like a father.
As Prince Hal regards his disreputable second father figure, King Henry also ponders upon Hotspur, who shares the same first name as his son (Hal, Harry, and Henry are considered variations on a theme), yet seems completely different in reputation from the hedonistic prince. The king envies the Earl of Northumberland for his impressive son as young Hotspur is driven, obstinate, and fiery tempered, but concerned with the honour of his family. The Percys were a major ally when the king usurped the previous monarch, Richard II, but are held in sudden contempt by Henry IV. Disrespected and angry, Hotspur and his relatives prepare an uprising that comes to a head at the climax of Henry IV Part 1 at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Throughout the play, Prince Hal and Hotspur switch places in the king’s esteem. When given the chance to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, the prince quickly steps up and eventually rides next to his father into battle. Hotspur’s impetuous attempts to rally support for his cause alienate him from some lords, forcing him to battle from a position of unpreparedness. The ignoble prince proves to be a worthy soldier and the hot-tempered lord fails to overthrow the king. In the end, Hotspur is killed, but more troubles are soon to come to the suddenly ailing Henry IV, as illuminated in Henry IV Part 2.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 copper seal rings