Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, two mighty forces in the 20th century theatre performed together in John Burrell’s 1945 Old Vic production of Henry IV Parts One and Two. To mark the opening of new productions of Henry IV by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this month the Shakespeare Institute Library is holding an exhibition on this landmark production featuring Laurence Olivier’s script as Hotspur (held by the Cadbury Research Library).
These productions were considered by most commentators to be a momentous achievement in the plays performance history. Ralph Richardson as Falstaff disregarded the tradition of playing the character as the personification of lust and gluttony and instead endued him with intelligence and a quick wit. Laurence Olivier with his usual flair and daring took on the roles of Hotspur in Part One and Shallow in Part Two – an unusual double. Olivier’s Hotspur stammered on the letter ‘w’ (stammering Hotspurs had been prevalent from Matheson Lang’s portrayal in 1896 to this point). From hot-tempered rebel leader to subdued and wistful Shallow, his interpretation of both characters was considered a tour de force.
… a Falstaff whose principal attribute was not his fatness but his knighthood. He was Sir John first, and Falstaff second… Richardson never rollicked or slobbered or staggered: it was not a sweaty fat man, but a dry and dignified one. As the great belly moved, step following step with great finesse lest it over-topple, the arms flapped fussily at the sides as if to paddle the body’s bulk along. It was deliciously and subtly funny, not riotously so: from his height of pomp Falstaff was chuckling at himself: it was not we alone, laughing at him. (Kenneth Tynan on Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff from He That Plays the King: A View of the Theatre, Longmans, Green & Co., 1950)
Laurence Olivier’s Hotspur immediately possesses the audience. Odd, uncouth, now darting of mind and phrase, now almost stammering of speech, sour, fiery – the figure is unforgettable: you watch him at every moment, tenderly domestic, roughly discursive, baiting Glendower, dying with harness on his back and iambics halting his tongue… (Ivor Brown, ‘Theatre and Life’ in The Observer, 30 September, 1945: 2)
As Shallow Laurence Olivier magically transformed from the valiant Hotspur to this rustic “cheese-paring”, acted with a quiet and cheerful senility…
Audrey Williamson, ‘The New Triumvirate (1944-47)’ in her Old Vic Drama: a twelve years’ study of plays and players, Rockliff, 1948: 212)
On the orchard scene:
The most treasurable scenes in these two productions were those in Shallow’s orchard: if I had only half an hour more to spend in theatres, and could choose at large, no hesitation but I would have these. Richardson’s performance, coupled with that of Miles Malleson as Silence, beak-nosed, pop-eyed, many-chinned and mumbling, and Olivier as Shallow, threw across the stage a golden autumnal veil, and made the idle sporadic chatter of the lines glow with the same kind of delight as Gray’s Elegy. (Kenneth Tynan, He That Plays the King: A View of the Theatre, Longmans, Green & Co., 1950)
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian