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The Crack Magazine

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Player Kings

It’s either a match made in heaven or a really inventive piece of casting against type, but in July the spare, willowy form of Sir Ian McKellen will grace the stage of the Theatre Royal as that conniving, roistering, sack-quaffing barrel of guts, Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff encapsulates the sort of dissolute, self-centred, self-excusing aristocratic type that still makes headlines, but he also radiates a charm that goes way beyond the practised smarminess of the over-privileged. In “Henry IV Parts I and II” he becomes an ersatz foster parent to young Prince Hal, a royal heir out of sympathy with his chilly father. It’s Falstaff who personifies the warmth and camaraderie of the pub, even when he’s planning some nefarious piece of skullduggery or lying through his teeth about his wild adventures. McKellen has called him “the ultimate gangster” but Shakespeare’s text puts the viewer on the inner track, for we’re able to see all of Sir John’s flaws while still enjoying his larger-than-life personality. “Text” might be a more appropriate term than “play” here, as Robert Icke’s modern-set adaptation effectively takes the Falstaff and Hal scenes from the two parts of “Henry IV“  and sews them together to produce a more concentrated portrait of that outrageous central character. This is not a new idea, as Orson Welles did something similar in the 1965 film “Chimes at Midnight”, showcasing the Falstaff/Hal relationship and (not incidentally) giving himself the chance to play the part of a lifetime. “Player Kings” is similarly a vehicle for McKellen’s interpretation of a role whose robust humour can, in the hands of an actor at the peak of his game, still reveal an eye-opening depth of complexity and motivation.

Player Kings, Theatre Royal, Newcastle, July 24th – 27th, theatreroyal.co.uk/whats-on/player-kings/

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