(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/28.)
It is now widely accepted that these two plays represent the twin summits of William Shakespeare's genius. Peter Hall, returning to them for the first time since he directed them at Stratford in 1964, has also realised them to perfection. He never lets us forget that they are about the search for order in a divided, burning land. Yet within the overall pattern, his productions are filled with a mass of complex human detail.
Hall has taken an initially surprising decision: to dress the plays in early Victorian costume. The move pays off handsomely. Sir John Falstaff's lowlife cronies have the spiky angularity of a Phiz illustration to a Dickens novel. And when Lizzie McInnerny's Mistress Quickly complains to Falstaff that "thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Whitsun-week", she anticipates the garrulous particularity of Pickwick's Mrs Bardell. Yet the production retains its epic sweep thanks to Simon Higlett's superb set, in which a brick wall opens up to provide a panorama of English life.