Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS?

Robert Icke's adaptation of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 is now open at the Noël Coward Theatre

By: Apr. 12, 2024
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Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS?
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Bringing together Shakespeare's two great history plays, Player Kings is now open at the Noël Coward Theatre. Ian McKellen plays Falstaff in a new version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, adapted by the award-winning writer and director Robert Icke. A divided country, leadership crumbling, corruption in the air. 

Hal wasn't born to be king. Only now, it seems, he will be. His father longs for him to leave behind his friends in the taverns of Eastcheap, most notably the infamous John Falstaff. War is on the horizon. But will Hal ever come good?

So what did the critics think?

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Alexander Cohen, BroadwayWorld: 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.

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Sam Marlowe, The Stage: At the thumping heart of it all is McKellen’s fabulous Falstaff. This lord of misrule, an aristocrat and petty criminal slumming it with the working class, is a slothful, wheezing, stinking creature of appetite, a stained vest straining over his ample, quivering gut (McKellen is extravagantly but persuasively padded). He seems to have something perpetually in his mouth – drool, phlegm, an unwholesome morsel of the greasy fast food that he crams in there – and each line has the flavour of some self-serving scheme inching its maggoty way out of his booze-soaked brain.

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Arifa Akbar, The Guardian: Falstaff’s crew of revellers and rustic yokels seem like a cross between Rooster’s “friends, outcasts and leeches” from Jerusalem and a modern, Fagin-like gang of burglars and pickpockets, with Falstaff as their head, and Mistress Quickly a particular highlight in Clare Perkins. We meet Hal (Toheeb Jimoh) staggering among them in underpants precariously slipping off (have we have seen a mooning prince before?).

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Alex Wood, WhatsOnStage: It all comes apart in a staid second half (shorter in length yet feeling longer), where both Shakespeare’s text and Icke’s choices feel much more lacklustre and uninspired. Without the urgent and imminent threat of civil war and insurrection, and with some strange directorial decisions (prostitute Mistress Tearsheet having an Eastern European accent felt particularly lazy), the wheels of Icke’s Shakespearean behemoth wobble as they scream out for voracity. Perfunctory design choices from Hildegard Bechtler, with the show’s aesthetics largely grounded in the early 20th century, don’t add anything too revelatory.

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Fiona Mountford, iNews: For all these plays’ wider concerns about a divided kingdom beleaguered by factions and rebellion, Icke sensibly focuses on the all-important central issue: which of the two available father figures will wayward Prince Hal (Toheeb Jimoh) choose to emulate? Will it be distant, pensive King Henry (Richard Coyle), visibly buckling under the weight of majesty? Or will it be the roistering Falstaff, lording it over a den of low-lives in the scrappy taverns of Eastcheap?

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS? Clive Davis, The Times: Is that enough of a reason to catch what could possibly be McKellen’s farewell to the West End? I hesitate to say yes because Icke’s marathon modern-day Shakespeare production — which runs to nearly four hours — yields such mixed results. One or two of the performances are fiery: as Hotspur, Samuel Edward-Cook (who doubles as Pistol) delivers martial swagger and raw machismo, while Clare Perkins is a raucous Mistress Quickly. Others fade into the background; warlords are presented with the air of weary bureaucrats. And Hildegard Bechtler’s unassuming set, dominated by expanses of plain brickwork, with the actors pulling back drab curtains to reveal new scenes, provides little to distract the eye.

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ian McKellen in PLAYER KINGS?
Average Rating: 70.0%


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