Jasper Britton as King Henry IV and Alex Hassell as Hal in Henry IV Part II. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade
Jasper Britton as King Henry IV and Alex Hassell as Hal in Henry IV Part II. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade

Shakespeare’s meditation on the universal themes of honour, duty, loyalty, and affection is packed with both dramatic action and raucous comedy.

No contemporary political parallels are intimated through costume or set – this is straight-down-the-line classic English theatre.

Antony Sher shines as Falstaff, in turns manipulative, deceitful, endearing and very human. But though Sher is by far the stand-out performance, Alex Hassell also plays a fine Prince Hal.

Part I centres on the strong attachment between the two men and its gradual unravelling as Hal responds to his higher calling as a warrior and defender of his father’s throne.

There is a clear spark between Sher and Hassell, who together elicit a wide range of emotional reaction.

Trevor White’s Hotspur is also well-judged, his bristling energy an apt counterpoint to Hal’s graceful self-assurance.

Part II picks up where Part I leaves off, but with a notable shift in emphasis as wild Hal’s sense of responsibility and filial duty becomes a heavier weight on his young shoulders.

On hearing news of a second rebellion, merry Falstaff is called away from London’s underbelly, his coquetry with potty-mouthed wench Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) and Mistress Quickly (Paula Dionisotti) put on hold.

He travels to Gloucestershire, recruiting a raggle-taggle band of old soaks and rustic bumpkins from country villages, all the while believing himself still in favour at the Westminster Court.

In the shires he meets former acquaintance Justice Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies), who provides light relief as he nostalgically, and erroneously, recalls his gallivanting youth.

But as the sick King weakens, so does the bond between Hal and his roly-poly companion – their separation is also physical as they meet only twice in the whole play.

The deathbed scene in which Hal mistakenly usurps his sleeping father by taking the crown is one of Part II’s strongest moments.

Grief for his dying father and the looming burden of the throne he must inherit combine to force the reluctant prince into maturity. Hassell is affecting, as his cocky smile slips into mask of desperation, his swagger turns to diffidence.

Once the new king is crowned, Falstaff has become an unsightly remnant of Hal’s old hedonistic life, a vestige of an ill-spent youth that he would rather put behind him. “I know thee not, old man,” he says, wrapped in pomp and finery.

Part II dwells on the extinguishing of life’s “brief candle” whereas Part I shows it burnt at both ends – it is something of a hangover – full of regrets and reminiscence.

Henry IV Parts I and II is at the Barbican, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS until 24 January

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