Published On: Sat, Apr 13th, 2024

Player Kings Review: The indefatigable Sir Ian McKellen at it again | Theatre | Entertainment

The indefatigable Sir Ian McKellen is at it again.

Having played most of the great roles in the Bard’s canon, he now takes on Elizabeth I’s favourite Shakespearean character, Falstaff – the ‘Fat Knight’ – in Robert Icke’s modern dress version of Henry IV parts 1 & 2.

At nearly four hours running time, it occasionally begs the question “Are we nearly there yet?” But McKellen keeps us entertained for most of the journey.

The roistering rogue is first seen in his watering hole The Boar’s Head enjoying the company of young people cavorting to a post punk blast of music while he quaffs his tipple of choice by the gallon.

He is every inch (and there are a lot of inches thanks to a fat suit) the shameless, self-serving, party animal who reigns like a dissolute monarch over his young acolytes that include Prince Harry (Toheed Jimoh), whose bare behind is on display in booze ‘n’ drugs fuelled debauchery.

Meanwhile, Henry IV (Richard Coyle) is attempting to deal with uppity Scottish nobles who are rebelling against the Westminster rule.

The parallels with contemporary Britain are clear though they are not hammered home mercilessly.

Prince ‘Hal’ Harry is going to have to put away adolescent things eventually when he succeeds his ailing Dad and that includes turning his back on his former playmates, Falstaff included.

Icke’s production is relatively unadorned, played out against brick walls and simple curtains and it lacks pace to the detriment of some scenes that seem to drag.

There are some mischievous details, though, that reward the patient observer: in her blue business suit and executive hairstyle, the King’s adviser Warwick (Annette McLaughlin) could double for Liz Truss; and Falstaff’s ‘commercial’ for his own brand of sherry is a cheeky nod to similar adverts by Orson Welles (who played Falstaff in his film Chimes at Midnight).

The Battle of Shrewsbury is effectively conveyed by a series of explosions while pairs of men duel with daggers and automatic pistols.

The second half picks up as McKellen stops acting like a drunken Paddington Bear and locates the pathos and mortal disappointment of an old retainer who is pushed aside by his former friend.

It’s a great performance in a production that isn’t quite worthy of him.

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