Rebellion and insurrection is all around, the king is struggling to keep hold of the Hollow Crown and, amid all the chaos one man reigns supreme.
Antony Sher’s Falstaff dominates and overwhelms Gregory Doran’s latest history production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Henry IV Parts I and II occupied most of yesterday for the country’s critics.
A total of five-and-a-half-hours of Britain’s bloody history intercut with the rise and fall of the Bard’s ultimate fool.
Falstaff is a gargantuan in every respect. He’s monstrously corpulent, riddled with gout, an alcoholic addicted to sherry, abusive, disrespectful, cowardly, a consummate liar, a teller of very tall tales and a rampant carouser.
Age hasn’t withered him nor tamed him. He frequently talks in asides to the audience, sharing with them his disreputable and dishonourable life.
Sher dons a fat suit to play Shakespeare’s larger-than-life jester and he lets rip with a suitably over-the-top performance that overshadows the more serious story of a 15th century Britain at war.
We’re really watching two plays within a single story. One is a farce set in the brothels and bawdy houses of Eastcheap with the lovable rogue, Jack Falstaff, while the other is a serious political and historical drama.
Part I, by far the more interesting of the two, opens with Henry Bolingbroke, after reluctantly snatching power from David Tenant’s Richard II in Doran’s earlier triumph, prostrate in church.
He’s gone from a warrior prince to a statesman-like king who is desperate to rule a country united in peace.
But there’s treachery in the ranks in the shape of the hot-headed Harry Percy, son of the Duke of Northumberland, who mobilises armies from the north, Scotland and Wales to rise up.
As the storm-clouds gather Henry’s son and heir, the playboy prince Hal, is to be found in bed with idle Jack and a couple of whores.
The youth spends his days drinking and living life to excess with the reprobate Sir John Falstaff by his side.
It takes the prospect of civil war and his father’s demise to deliver a much needed wake-up call.
The action in Part I is fast and furious. Knights fight it out and plot treason while the shambling, rotund shape of Falstaff, offers fatherly, if disorderly, support to the fledgling prince.
By Part II the story seems to run out of steam and is given over to Falstaff’s dissolute lifestyle.
It only picks up, if that’s the right expression, with an impassioned speech by a dying king.
As usual with the RSC there is a cast, seemingly, of dozens.
Jasper Britton makes a compelling king in Henry IV and a very human and exasperated father, seemingly powerless to rein in his son’s debauchery.
Alex Hassell is a lively Prince Hal although, watching him, I couldn’t help being reminded of Jude Law’s recent outing as Henry V.
There is a comic cameo for RSC regular Oliver Ford Davies and more fun provided by Paola Dionisotti as the pox-ridden tavern owner, Mistress Quickly.
Trevor White turns in an unhinged performance as the quick-tempered young upstart, Percy.
But all eyes are on Sher as the inveterate drunk Sir John Falstaff as he bumbles through the play as though in a bawdy romp only to be brought up short in the final scene.
There are times when Doran lets the humour become too intrusive with lengthy tavern scenes and monologues diverting the audience’s attention away from the serious matter of war.
Sean Chapman, as Northumberland and, after a wig change, a Scots Lord; Simon Thorp as the dour and committed Lord Chief Justice; and Joshua Richards as Falstaff’s booze-sodden sidekick Bardolph also give notable support.
Henry IV runs in repertoire at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon until September 6 with live performances screened to cinemas worldwide on May 14 (Part I) and June 18 (Part II).
It will also be broadcast into schools in July and tours to Theatre Royal, Newcastle (Sep 25-Oct 4); Theatre Royal, Norwich (Oct 14-18); The Lowry, Salford (Oct 21-25); Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (Oct 28-Nov 1); Theatre Royal, Bath (Nov 4-8); Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (Nov 11-15); and The Barbican, London (Nov 28-Jan 24.)