The Royal Shakespeare Company are in town, and we’re at the NCPA to see them. There’s a certain irony in this, as in England we lived twenty miles away from Stratford-upon-Avon, but hardly ever went to the theater there. As Joni Mitchell said though, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and when it follows you halfway round the world, it would be rude not to show up.
But this is no ordinary trip to the theater. This is 10-year-old Noah’s initiation into Shakespeare. We’re fortunate that the play is Henry IV Part 1, and Noah has inherited my nerdy fascination with fifteenth century English history. (The gene for this has yet to be identified.) In defense of our nerdiness, 15th century English history is brilliant, full of ambition, honor, betrayal, battles and murder. The Starks and Lannisters of Game of Thrones owe more than a little to the Yorks and Lancasters.
And Shakespeare crafted a magnificent play out of this material, one of his finest. It is tightly constructed around a trio of Henrys: the titular King, his wayward son the Prince of Wales, and the valiant but temperamental Harry Hotspur. It shifts surefootedly between comedy and tragedy, and portrays all levels of society, from the scheming of nobles to the more practical concerns of the common man (“Peas and beans are as dank here as a dog,” one complains. I know how he feels.) And it builds to a climactic battle. “Will there be sword fights?” Noah asked. I promised there would.
At first I whisper anxiously between scenes, checking that he understands what’s going on, but I soon realize this is unnecessary. Besides, I don’t want to offer any encouragement to the woman two seats down, who talks on her mobile phone throughout the whole first half. Fortunately, she doesn’t return after the interval, otherwise words would have to be had. (Really, why do so many people in Beijing go to shows in which they clearly have no interest? The tickets are not cheap, and they just spoil it for everybody else. End of moan.)
In truth the play is easy to follow. The actors of the RSC speak the verse clearly and beautifully, letting Shakespeare’s words do the work. The comedy is universal enough to have a mainly Chinese audience laughing, and even if you don’t understand all the language, there’s an energy to it which is unmissable, particularly the insults in which this play is so rich:
“…that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly…”
This of course is a description of Falstaff, played by Sir Anthony Sher. Sher is one of the great stage performers of his generation, and he delivers a commanding performance in a gift of a role. I don’t know whether Noah appreciates what a masterclass he is seeing, but I hope that in the future he’ll be able to boast that he was there.
Noah is chirpy at the interval, but by 10pm he is beginning to tire.
“Is it near the end?” he asks, and when I tell him it is, he says, “You promised there’d be lots of sword fights.”
“No,” I reply, “I promised there’d be sword fights,” and at last they come, as Prince Harry and Harry Hotspur face off in a showdown at Shrewsbury. Hotspur dies noisily, honor is satisfied, and soon we are on the subway home. (That’s another thing. Why is it impossible to get a taxi at the NCPA?)
Noah enjoyed his evening, and I think children can appreciate Shakespeare, as long as it’s presented as a treat and not a dull but worthy obligation. Which, after all, is what it should be: an entertainment, a “play” in every sense. And if nothing else, they can learn not use their phones in a theater…