(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18; Photo: Fine performance … David Warner as Falstaff and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I in 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Ian McKellen follows in the footsteps of David Warner and Antony Sher as he takes on a character who has been played as wittily jovial and cruelly cunning

When asked why he had never played Falstaff, Charles Laughton said: “We had to throw too many of his kind out of our family’s hotel in Scarborough.” Undeterred by such niceties, Ian McKellen will shortly be taking on the “fat knight” in Player Kings, Robert Icke’s conflation of the two parts of Henry IV. Great actors of the past, such as David Garrick and Edmund Kean, chose to play Hotspur rather than Falstaff. But today most actors would bite your arm off for the chance to have a go at the role – and you can see why.

Falstaff, as a dramatic character, is as complex, contradictory and multilayered as Hamlet. At one extreme WH Auden saw him as a figure of supernatural, Christ-like charity: at another, he is viewed as the embodiment of Vice as portrayed in the medieval morality plays. He can entice audiences with his wit, charm and what the literary critic James Wood has called his comic specificity: Wood cites his uproarious lie about being attacked at Gadshill by “three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green”. But Falstaff can also repel spectators with his predatoriness and casual cruelty. The contradiction is there from the start when Falstaff seeks to justify nocturnal theft to Hal by saying: “Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.” Was night-time robbery ever more seductively phrased?

But, looking at a handful of first-rate Falstaffs over the past 40 years, I see a greater stress on the character’s dark side. One reason is that we increasingly play Part Two, in which Falstaff is aware of old age and death, alongside the more boisterous Part One. Another is that actors and directors have shed the sentimentality of the past. Although I had qualms about Michael Bogdanov’s Marxist reading of the plays, John Woodvine was wonderful in the English Stage Company’s 1987 Henriad. As I wrote at the time, he was alternately “sly as a fox and warm as a coal-fire” and relished his verbal ingenuity. At the height of the Gadshill scene, he crucially urged Hal to mark his tale “for it is worth the listening to”.

If Woodvine was a Falstaff who knew his own worth, Robert Stephens in Adrian Noble’s 1991 production was a growingly tragic character; indeed I was more moved than by Stephens’ acclaimed King Lear. For a start, Stephens hinted at his knowledge of a better self: when, at the end of Part One, he vowed “to live cleanly as a nobleman should do” I was reminded of a fallen Lucifer aware of a paradise lost. But the clinching moment came in Part Two. Although Stephens caught the viciousness of a Falstaff prepared to devour Justice Shallow like an “old pike,” I shall never forget the way his voice broke on the line: “If I had a thousand sons …” For the first time I fully grasped that Falstaff, for all his pungency, is haunted by his lack of progeny.

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