Telegraph article: Henry IV (2005)

The heir and the honeysuckle villain



The National Theatre's first ever production of Henry IV stars the mouthwatering duo of Spooks' smooth secret agent Matthew Macfadyen as Hal, and Michael Gambon in the role he was born to play - Falstaff. They talk to Alastair Sooke

This isn't the first time that Michael Gambon has been asked to play Falstaff. At a dinner in 1988, Gambon sat next to Richard Eyre, who made him laugh until he slipped off his chair.

Michael Gambon
Falstaff: 'he's a deeply duplicitous bastard', says Gambon

"With his belly, his legs stretched out and his seismic laughter, he looked like Falstaff," Eyre recalls in his memoirs of his time as director of the National Theatre. "'Will you play Falstaff?' I said. 'Of course,' said Mike." But not for a moment did Eyre believe him.

"It's an onerous thing to play Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, isn't it?" drawls Gambon, his eyes twinkling at the memory. "I must have been feeling weak when Richard asked me."

Seventeen years on, Nicholas Hytner has finally cajoled Gambon into donning a fat suit to play plump Jack in the first production of Henry IV in the National's history.

His foil, Hal, "the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales", the boy who grows up to be Henry V, is played by Matthew Macfadyen, most familiar for his performance as agent Tom Quinn in Spooks on BBC1.

When I meet them in a shoebox office at the National, they seem to be in character even off-stage. Gambon is slumped on a sofa, munching his way through lunch, crumbs cascading over his dingy beard. Appropriately for someone playing such a "honeysuckle villain", he looks decidedly dissolute.

By contrast, Macfadyen, soon to be seen playing Darcy alongside Keira Knightley in a new film of Pride and Prejudice, is looking rather preppy in sober knitwear. Hal might spend his time slumming it with Falstaff in the East End, but he knows that, one day, he'll have to renounce his wanton ways and inherit England's crown.

Neither actor has appeared in Henry IV before, nor have they ever seen it in production. Both are determined to blank out the august history of the play in performance.

"I try to avoid thinking about the theatrical tradition," says Gambon.

"It's all ephemeral anyway," chips in Macfadyen.

"That's the wonderful thing about the theatre," Gambon agrees. "It only stays in the memory, it's gone forever."

Gambon has played Shakespearean leads before - including Lear and Antony - but this will be his first on the National Theatre stage, even though his career break came when he joined Laurence Olivier's newly formed National Theatre as a spear carrier in 1963. Not that he's especially excited. What does excite both actors is that they're back on stage at all.

"I can't go a year without doing a play," says Gambon. "This gives me the right to go and earn a lot of money in a movie. I feel this legitimises my life."

Matthew Macfadyen
'Hal knows he's going to reject Falstaff, but he still loves him', says Macfadyen

"It's been about five years since I was on stage," says Macfadyen.

"So I feel more like an actor doing this. It feels like a proper job."

They joke that, on the minus side, memorising the text is a challenge and Hytner is an exacting boss.

"It's a nightmare to learn the prose," Gambon complains. "You just have to stick your head down and cry. And hope you don't get a bollocking from Nick. He's a slave driver! I'm on the verge of getting the bullet every night."

Gambon and Macfadyen have worked together before, on Stephen Poliakoff's 2001 television drama Perfect Strangers, in which they played father and son. "Falstaff and Hal have a father-son relationship," says Macfadyen. "So there are echoes. Even though Hal knows he's going to reject Falstaff, he still loves him for that moment."

The strongest image of Falstaff in the popular mind is a roly-poly rascal, blessed with a nimble, fiery wit and an anarchic appetite for life. But he does have other, more shadowy aspects.

"He's a shitbag who loves being near the future king of England," says Gambon, laughing. "He's a deeply mercenary man, isn't he?" "He's a creep," Macfadyen says.

So why do we love him? "There's something fundamentally attractive about him," says Gambon. "He's like a child, actually. He f***s about all day. He's also a victim. People take the piss out of him. Deep down, he is tragic because he's going to have nothing at the end. He'll end up in a bedsit in Clapham. But no one will ever conquer his spirit."

By Part 2, Falstaff is tetchier and more brittle. "He's sick and lonely," says Gambon, "harder, less exuberant. Play two is more serious."

Macfadyen agrees. "It's like the morning after. No more frippery."

By the second play, Falstaff, increasingly separated from Hal, spends his time clowning around in Eastcheap, engaged in extempore plays and pointless high jinks. Auden called him "an actor living in a world of words".

"He's a deeply duplicitous bastard," Gambon says. "He is an actor, different in every scene. I don't know who the real guy is yet. I don't know if I'll ever find him."

It's the same with Gambon himself, who also has a reputation for horseplay, mucking about on stage and fibbing in interviews. Like Falstaff, he has the reputation as a prankster, especially in his recent role as a mischievous Dumbledore in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I ask whether he feels any affinity with his part. "No, I'm a meek, frightened person," he says at once. I think this is a joke. As we leave, and Macfadyen walks ahead, Gambon turns and gives me an enormous wink. He's going to be a terrific Falstaff.