The rapping gangster knight

Having just been crowned king, the young Prince Hal (Toheeb Jimoh) declares “I know you not old man” denouncing an old, crusty sod, he being none other than Sir John Falstaff, a knight of the realm – an obese, self-interested slob who will trample on anybody to get what he wants. The king knows that and will no longer have any truck with this creature of contradictions. It is an important moment in Robert Ickes’ Player Kings (Noël Coward Theatre) who has, according to some Shakespearean purists, committed artistic blasphemy in taking the two plays of Henry IV and making them one. In doing so he has created a vehicle for (Sir – a relevant prefix in this context) Ian McKellen to finally inhabit the role he has previously avoided – “not feeling ready” – describing him as “the ultimate gangster.” He is now 84 years old, padded out in extremis, he dominates proceedings, both in bulk and verbiage. It runs for over three and a half hours and lest you think it be a vanity project for this particular knight, there is a plethora of talent aiding and abetting this masterclass in character acting.
The first half has the lions share of the dramatic money moments, several of which are provided by Jimoh, a young man whose natural and charismatic demeanour perfectly compliments the disrespecting lump of lard for whom he develops nothing but disdain. Jimoh brings Shakespearean language to life in ways that will connect with a young and perhaps sceptical audience. Some believe that present day Falstaff’s include Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. If that be so, Jimoh’s Hal is more akin to the young Blair or Obama, magnetic in word and deed, smart yet driven, fighting hard to resist the corrupting influence that power brings. There is also fine work from Joseph Mydell as the Lord Chief Justice and cameo by Clare Perkins as mischievous Mistress Quickly.
The second half suffers in comparison, sliding into a less coherent narrative, episodic as opposed to the engrossing ebb and flow that preceded it. Despite that the unrelenting outbursts, from the fat fool with hangdog features continue unabated, sometimes ridiculous, often funny, and always from a solipsistic standpoint. The occasional spurts of spittle, deliberate or otherwise, lending further authenticity to what is a monumental achievement in both artistry and stamina. Hildegard Bechtler’s set design, she has collaborated with Icke on ten other shows, is dominated by brick walls and curtains. One being a barrier to those take risks, especially if contemplating playing dirty on the unscrupulous bugger, the other being an opening of what is and what is to come. Bring a drink, settle down and relish the garrulous gangster rapping his tavern drunk patter and lubricious wit.
And Iasonas Oulligalla tunes in to musical beauty and power…
The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) were out in force of numbers last week for what was a memorable concert at The Royal Festival Hall. As principal conductor Edward Gardner took the stand and the Bohemian looking German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt took position front left of the orchestra there was an anticipatory silence for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. The cello sang beautifully under Altstaedt’s control. Part of Dvorak’s charm in this cello concerto is the heavenly sweeping melodic writing, and short character motifs in which every note the cello plays is audible. The slow movement demonstrated the soloist’s powers of instrumental phrasing like that of a vocalist with strong suggestions of folksong along with a darker minor key central section. This cello concerto is romantic and impressive in every sense of the word and utterly absorbing.
From the romantic to the celestial, the second half of the programme was given over to Holst’s The Planets. Holst’s work is in part connected to his fascination with transcendentalism and mysticism. The depiction of each planet seems to have both planetary and human characteristics and therefore a belief in humanity shines through. Holst insisted that these are not works of programme music, but each planet should be taken as a broad sweep from its title. Here, the LPO excelled – providing the contrasts of Mars and Jupiter and finally as the music becomes further from Earth and human comprehension we are left with the voices of the chorus of the London Youth Choir in Neptune growing fainter and fainter until sound and silence are indistinguishable. A chilling and awe-inspiring end to a concert of starry night proportions and songs of longing and loss: familiar masterpieces made startlingly new and fresh.

Player Kings –
Southbank Centre –

Photo credit: Manuel-Harlan

Leave a Reply