Review: PLAYER KINGS, Noël Coward Theatre

Ian McKellen is a mesmerising Falstaff in Robert Icke's iconoclastic fusion of Henry IV parts 1 and 2

By: Apr. 12, 2024
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Review: PLAYER KINGS, Noël Coward Theatre
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Player KingsWhat is honour? asks a cynical Falstaff whilst girding his loins for war. A psychopathic enemy in Henry Hotspur awaits on the battlefield. Death stares the fat knight in the eye. Sir Ian McKellen mutters his answer with a bulldog snarl: “What is honour? A word.” Director Robert Icke also has a sardonic answer to Falstaff’s question.

His hotly anticipated Player Kings, a streamlined but full-bodied Henry IV parts 1 and 2, peels back the pomp and circumstance of England, war, and royalty with unflinching brutality. What lies beneath the patriotic sentimentality? What sits under the hollow crown? Nihilism. Honour is less than a word here. It’s less than nothing.

Watching an Icke production is like having brain surgery. The auteur has made his name with ice cold reinventions of classic plays that sliced straight into you with scalpel like precision. Whilst no stranger to Shakespeare, Player Kings is a step out the comfort zone: there’s still the heavy themes firing together and against each other like synapses, but here it's soaked in bawdy earthiness and barrels of acidic wit thanks to Falstaff.

His rag-tag coterie of petty outlaws are East End gangsters, leather jacketed Del Boys plodding in boots and braces. McKellen lumbers, Walrus-like, conjuring centrifugal energy to bolt and dart with athletic dexterity. It’s less a marathon of a performance, more a series of consecutive sprints. Each one-liner is pitch perfectly dry but there’s rusting tragedy humming beneath the bubbly glee and schoolboy smirks; wheezing and spluttering, he is old, at one with his morality. He stares into the void and shrugs.

Come for McKellen but stay for Toheeb Jimoh who frames Hal’s evolution from adolescent raver in cigarette smoke-hazed Boar’s Head pub in Eastcheap to cold hearted warrior with fresh focus. He is uncurbed at first, prone to lashing out in hormonal rage; fear glistens in his eyes but bloodshot bravery pumps in his heart. Jimoh navigates the language’s logic, finding the contrapuntal impulses in in his pensive rhythms and ultimately the regal maturity to brutally reject Falstaff.

Player Kings

But don’t expect a stiff upper lip salute to bunting, bravado and ol’ blighty. There’s glass swilling warmth, but Icke’s plucky production is all sweat, spit, and bile beneath the surface dragging myths through the mud. The Battle of Shrewsbury at the climax of part 1, pulsates with unflinching gore. Hal’s muscle clad standoff with Hotspur is anything but a heroic clash of worthy warriors. All guts no glory, Falstaff puts it best: “honour? What is that ‘honour’? Air.” It all melts into air and Falstaff knows it.

He is brilliantly self-aware of how his ascent to celebrity war hero in part 2, paraded in a wheelchair adorned in medals and paparazzi flashes, is a propagandic sham. Milking every morsel, it could be a sly echo of lockdown hero Captain Tom’s now tarnished legacy, courtesy of greed. Only his wistful soliloquies reveal the melancholy under the chutzpah.  

Some flourishes are more conspicuous than others; the counter tenor that swans in and out of scenes singing hymns is too on-the-nose to resonate. An eerie rendition of Jerusalem in a play probing England and Englishness feels like an obvious choice and Icke struggles find the drumbeat in the more unwieldy part 2. But his iconoclastic vision retains heart clenching bite in its subtle but salty interrogation of power. Four hundred years old, Shakespeare's history plays conjure spine tingling new force for the 21st century.

Player Kings plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 22 June

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan



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