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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Low Down

Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha. Some props are deployed. Next reading Henry V either on Sunday 29th or possibly December 1st.


The return match: actors have swapped ends. Part 1’s Henry IV Martin Malone (preciously referred to as Martin Gordon) is – as well as Rumour and Mouldy – Falstaff. And Ross Gurney-Randall – Falstaff in The Merry Wives – is now Henry IV.

With a cast of 11 as opposed to the first part’s 21, there’s much creative doubling and very occasionally an improvisational swapping where suddenly an actor comes up against themselves playing two parts at once.

Rules are simple: the play’s cast two days ahead, actors con their parts, everyone including observers pile on zoom. It’s live, pure adrenalin pumps your screen, the action of the tiger cub crashes through it. Hal will be a grown growly tiger soon – wait for the upcoming Henry V!

This is longer than Henry IV/1. And less popular, more autumnal, profounder, less flashy. Battles are drawn up but disperse. The winning side is tricksy and dishonourable. Falstaff finds the colour he’ll die in.

Shakespeare often troped a whole country as a body politic, a living thing: it infects all characters from monarch down. In Denmark it’s out of joint – Hamlet enforcing silence about murdered Denmark his father, in effect swallows or seals the ills of the country; becoming Denmark himself. Here, the titular Henry IV is as we discover mortally sick, prematurely aged. It’s about the ‘indirect and crooked ways’ he ‘got the crown’.

Youngish as Richard II opens, Bolingbroke the future Henry IV ages throughout that play to end worrying about young Hal. Henry IV in both Parts 1 and 2 seems old enough for John Gielgud to play him in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’ His detractors soon refer to him as ‘revolted Bolingbroke’ and the irony of praising Richard II now he’s safely dead is lost on no-one here. He’s good, being gone.

Tropes of disease even affect Falstaff’s water, analysed by the doctor ‘that has more diseases in it than he can answer for’. And Hal himself in his first line, coming on late at the start of Act 2: ‘Before God I am exceeding weary.’ Gadshill is so last summer.

Gurney-Randall’s Lord Bardolph is all patrician snarl, his hapless Francis wincing with reproof, and in his Falstaff Gurney-Randall’s inner louche – seen for instance in his own Henry VIII one-person show – is an old lion, very rampant. It’s in the pause and timing of his lines that Randall-Gurney shows his authority in a role reversing his Henry IV in Part 1. As if in truth this production reverses Falstaff play-acting Henry IV as he did against Hal in that play.

Gurney-Randall’s wintry with all regret, the Orson Wellesian element even more pronounced than Malone’s traversal. There’s a deep retrieval at times from his gravelly lower strata, a voice weighed with mortality, though quick-fire enough – in particular Gurney-Randall’s rapid shifts of register when a final line requires a barked order – render us a rendered man as if long-studied in his flesh. Kings Gurney-Randall is born to play: he breathes even more in his Falstaff.

Malone’s grave Henry IV is another proof of this more recent member showing how he points verse, inhabits kingship with true grief in the final part of Act III with Hal, and edges a lip of wrath and tempo change when required to order. Again Malone slows pace when the king’s pained, quickens back in relief, and is truly moving.

His Rumour is quick too, sardonic, sour and self-delighted suggesting a moral bankrupt more than mere imp. His Mouldy is all querulous care.

Conor Baum’s Hal is here still the heroic hectoring Baum has made his own, a frolicsome trumpet. Yet Baum’s greatest register is his capacity to convey anguish and self-overcoming with an edge of panic. He’s sardonic with Ross-Gurney’s Falstaff when they briefly encounter each other, but that of course is mainly at the devastating end.

That rejection’s a study in adamant here. Here Baum doesn’t go for quickening humour in ‘reply me not with a fool-born jest’ when he makes an inadvertent pun – ‘Know that the grave doth gape for thee thrice wider than for other men.’ Hal – here more emotionally attuned than in most performances – slows over the emollient promise to offer Falstaff advancement as he improves, something he makes good to the Chief Justice in private later. It is though, however necessary and public, still devastating.

Baum and Malone provide that other father-son scene of enormous power and pathos; it was difficult to witness this without tears, so moving was Malone’s acute pain on realizing on waking his crown’s gone and Hal’s taken it. The colloquy between them here so delicately drawn-out is a sculpture in anguish: each actor moves round the stately grief of misprision, parting and reconcilement. They trace an arc and fall of each emotion and release them, finally in concord. It’s hugely affecting.

Baum also takes duplicitous Westmoreland, a curveball Machiavel in a just cause. He’s the rebel Morton too, nervy, rightly apprehensive, as well as – magnificently – Silence. And this Silence, like Harpo, speaks. Or rather sings. Often cut, the hilarity of an eloquent singing silence drunk on sack or whatever pottage he swipes is a delight. Baum’s a fine singer and improvises tunes for his burden.

Joanna Rosenfeld’s pained and wily Northumberland is one here almost visibly wracked, from hearing the death of son Hotspur to canny and cowardly withdrawal. She dispatches the brief Henry IV courtiers Gower and Harcourt and finds her latter apotheosis as Shallow – all witless antithetical phrases and repeats billowing to hot air. Rosenfeld’s tread of a man of halt and hapless gulling makes almost aerial music with Gurney-Randall’s Falstaff as well as Baum’s Silence. You sense this Shallow’s in for a little late learning, as long as he can remember it.

Sharon Drain takes Hostess, that put-upon Quickly engaging Falstaff for breach of promise yet twirled around his little fat finger. Here she’s invested with no small smack of dignity. Drain and Gurney-Randall enjoy a skirling dance-off of words. Drain, long a lyrically expressive actor (Sam Chittenden’s Sary), yet again proves her Shakespeare chops – something that like several actors here back in March, she’d barely tackled.

One of Quickly’s bailiffs, Fang is taken by Jules Craig, whose skirl of accents rounds: from doughty rebel Coleville captured by Falstaff through princely Humphrey of Gloucester, Travers and recruit Wart to her magnificent Doll Tearsheet, defiant, scurvy and a poxy doxy dear as her beloved Edith Sitwell would put it (in Craig’s Edith, Elizabeth, and I at Brighton Festival). Craig as ever cuts through, here with a distinctive roil of blank verse: moiling it when Doll, then full of matter and set at point at court.

Ben Baeza’s parts encompass more than rebel, gullible Hastings, as well as Will, Page, recruit Feeble the tailor who proves heroic and Shallow’s comic servant Davy. Baeza exudes the confidence his more truculent OFS roles confirm – here transmitted through luckless Hastings, all sweet and sour reason. And much good it does him. His Feeble’s genuinely moving in ‘We owe God a death’ and in contrast to everyone else, opting for what’s right and refusing to buy himself out.

Rosanna Bini’s early Lady Percy forms a triumvir of grief with Katey Fraser’s Lady Northumberland and her spouse Northumberland – here in Rosenfeld’s stoic. Later Bini – also loyal ruthless Warwick and a noisome Bardolph – finds an apotheosis of rectitude as Chief Justice. Here in contrast to other roles Bini’s able to push the register of stately blank verse – being often associated with slinky duplicitous types.

Edd Berridge takes Snare the other bailiff, a Servant, Drawer, ox-brained Bullcalf and finally some dignity as John of Lancaster. This is a cold glinting role, several degrees chillier than Hal and never warmed as Falstaff notes by sherris. Berridge’s sense of John’s flinty dutifulness is keen and sparky.

Apart from a flurry of small parts, First Groom (one line!), Peto and Beadle, Fraser’s court role is as the brother – Thomas of Clarence – Hal loves best. There’s a touching scene with Malone’s Henry IV as the latter enjoins Clarence to cleave to the imminent Henry V, to gain a good office. As Lady Northumberland we’ve seen Fraser interact chorically with Bini and Rosenfeld.

Fraser’s chief role though is Archbishop of York defiant to John’s taunts against his reverend white-haired learnedness being out of grace in diseased rebellion. Fraser well catches the Archbishop’s crumpling sense when Northumberland again deserts the insurrection.

This kerning of degree and order, patterning through the histories and cynically used by Odysseus in his Troilus and Cressida speech, is key to Shakespeare’s apologia; or rather his navigable sense of how to keep his own head. To promulgate natural order, examine its unnatural usurpation by crooked ways or outright revolt, is a plea too for sheer national survival. 25 years after Shakespeare’s death, you see what he feared come to pass.

Harry Morris’s Poins bounces off as a foil to Baum’s Hal, which allows him a sober skirling – a man fundamentally loyal and decent but being as he points out a second son, no more than the Everyman Hal sounds off. He disappears in the latter scenes as if Shakespeare can’t quite bear to place him under Hal’s general banishment. He could better serve a baser man. Another big role is Mowbray, the doughty doubting rebel whose Cassius-like presentiments prove all too accurate. Morris is inside a man who divines treachery like a water dowser. Apart from Second Groom (another one liner!) Porter and Shadow yet a third fiery role is explosive Pistol with barricadoes for a bully as it were, where Pistol’s stuffed too full of words to get them out properly. Morris gets the man’s essential watchfulness.

This is an alert, dark-hued production, however rapidly limned. It’s a privilege as ever to see this company grow in confidence as a Shakespearean band of listeners and overhearers, attuning by the play to let drama run clear through the poetry.

Much Ado would be next, but understandably those plays covered in the ‘Unlocked’ six-pack of summer performances in St Ann’s Wells aren’t being revived again. Of those six Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream had already been zoomed, blossoming in their outdoor incarnation. But alongside them Much Ado, As You like It, Troilus and Cressida and Macbeth having enjoyed sparkling productions, will be omitted as zooms. However rarities such as Edward III, Sir Thomas More and even Double Falsehood will certainly run. And we need them in the run-on sanity of this magnificent enterprise.

The original cast list is appended below.

RUMOUR / / KING / MOULDY Martin Malone

HOSTESS Sharon Drain