In Review

Henry IV Parts I and 2 – reviews of RSC at Barbican

Sher is tremendous as Falstaff in triumphant Shakespeare double 'bursting with life'

What you need to know

The Royal Shakespeare Company's double-bill of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 has opened at the Barbican, London. Gregory Doran directs the plays, which were first staged in Stratford-upon-Avon in April before touring the UK.

Shakespeare's plays tell the story of troubled king Henry IV, who must deal with unrest and rebellion, while his dissolute son Prince Hal frequents taverns and brothels with his roguish companion Falstaff. But as the king becomes increasingly besieged, Hal must discard his old ways and assume his position as heir to the kingdom.

Stars Alex Hassell as Hal and Antony Sher as Falstaff. Runs until 24 January. 

What the critics like

"Rich, absorbing and pulsing with life, Gregory Doran's RSC productions of this pair of Shakespearean dramas are a triumphant achievement," says Sam Marlowe in The Times. Sher is tremendous as Falstaff, and the stagings are bursting with intricate portrayals and moments of arresting psychological acuity.

"The best Falstaffs are generally the more philosophical ones, and Antony Sher's performance falls excellently into this category," says Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times. Hassell's Hal, in turn, runs the full gamut from tavern capers to battlefield valour and court dedication without straining.

Sher's excellent Falstaff is key to the success these fast-paced productions, which are nicely contained by brilliantly versatile set designs that double as low taverns and lofty cathedrals, says Daisy Bowie-Sell in Time Out. The two plays together are illuminating – "a full, engrossing, entertaining narrative, an epic journey of friendship, betrayal, coming-of-age and kingship".

What they don't like

Doran's "diligent trawl through both parts of Henry IV" doesn't compare well to Phyllida Lloyd's recent dazzling, visceral portmanteau version at the Donmar set in a women's prison, says David Nice on the Arts Desk. This one lacks pace, has poor verse speaking and is "as tedious as a tired horse".

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