Player Kings: Monumental, but flawed theatre

“Thus we play fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and amuck us.”

Prince Hal.

Ian McKellen as Falstaff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Since hanging up his Tolkien and Marvel mantles, Ian McKellen has been far from idle. At a time when most consider putting up their feet, he’s done the exact opposite. Some films and TV aside, his focus has been back to his first love and great passion, Theatre. In recent years he’s treated audiences to Godot, a retrospective one-man-show Ian McKellen on Stage, an ageless Hamlet, and even Mother Goose. But now, at a breathtaking 84 years, he’s gone and trumped all of that.

In Player Kings we get a double rarity. Firstly, we get McKellen in a major Shakespearean role he’s never played and, as if that wasn’t enough, he doubles our excitement by giving us two plays, back-to-back. For Player Kings is director Robert Icke’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 combined, with Sir Ian as the fabled Falstaff.

For those unaware, the combined play, in essence, tells a generational story of Henry IV and his wayward son, Hal. In Part 1 Henry IV has taken the crown of England, but not without leaving a powerful collection of rebellious nobles at large. His throne is far from safe and while he tries to politic himself to a place of safety and stability, his eldest son, Hal is thieving and whoring with a band of East London laggards and wastrels. 

Ian McKellen as Falstaff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Part 1 ends in a bloody and costly war in which Henry is victorious and Hal starts to better understand and take responsibility for his position. Part 2 picks up after the battle of Shrewsbury and whilst more focus is placed on Falstaff (Hal’s friend and in many ways, father figure), the core narrative addresses Henry’s declining health, Hal’s preparation to take over the throne and, in doing so, discarding his wayward ways.

In Robert Icke’s adaptation the language is firmly Shakespearean but the power-suited nobles and hoodied reprobates let us know we’re somewhere altogether more recognisable. The opening scene of semi-clad, coke sniffing, and gun waving revellers writhing to a deafening dance music soundtrack, set the tone perfectly. Welcome to Eastcheap’s most famous tavern like you’ve never seen it before.

This Henry not only looks modern, it has an energy and pace that is very much of this century. The truncated narrative gives us what we need to know and little more. To bring two full length plays into one (albeit long) play, you need to be ruthless with your editing, and Icke seems to have taken that to heart . . . well, for the first part at least.

Richard Coyle as King Henry Vi (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Part 1 is a tour de force of theatre. Funny, dramatic, exciting and a visual treat – rarely has a brick wall been so impactful. Hildegard Bechtler’s set design is a masterclass in simplicity and creativity. Looking like little more than a brick walled basement, the use of curtains, some simple props, and Lee Curran’s inspired lighting, it transforms magically from a tavern to a royal court to a war zone.

Part 2 by contrast is more introspective and melancholy. Whilst Falstaff provides some glorious witty moments and takes more of the narrative lifting, it feels slow and, more unfortunately – unnecessary. There’s a lot of story but you feel as if it’s going nowhere of consequence.

Much has been said of McKellen’s performance, and rightly so. Here is a man at ease with medium of stage and the language of Shakespeare, but also one that’s just relishing the joy of playing such a larger-than-life character. Despite his 80+ years, there’s a physicality and energy to his performance that seems to defy his age.

But this is not a one-man show. It’s an ensemble piece that is performed, for the most, with equal aptitude. Toheeb Jimoh is a particular delight as the petulant, errant Hal as is Clare Perkins with her east-London/Caribbean twang delivering a pitch perfect comic performance as Mistress Quickly, the owner of the East London tavern.

Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Hal and Richard Coyle as King Henry IV. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

At over three and a half hours, this is a production that will test the most ardent of theatre goers, but don’t be put off by that. The first act (Part 1 of the 2 plays) is vibrant, energetic, funny, and dramatic. Taking more than half of the running time, it zips by and culminates in a truly mesmeric war scene that leads you breathless into the intermission. After such an ending, the second act is frustratingly slower. Whilst one’s attention is more focussed on the King’s ailing health and Hal’s ability to step-up, we’re given a merry tale about Falstaff and his post-war shenanigans.

Whilst entertaining, it feels like fodder to pad out the central tale and the various stories seem drawn out to fill time rather than give the central plot any boost. But this is a minor criticism to what is otherwise a monumental production. Despite the second act’s shortcomings, this is great theatre that ought to be experienced.

Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Harry (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Production Notes

Player Kings

Adapted by Robert Icke from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One and Two

Directed by Robert Icke



Ian McKellen

Robin Soans

Clare Perkins

David Shelley

Samuel Edward-Cook

Annette McLaughlin

Daniel Rabin

Geoffrey Freshwater

Hywel Morgan

James Garnon

Joseph Mydell

Mark Monero

Nigel Lister

Richard Coyle

Sara Beharrell

Tafline Steen

Toheeb Jimoh

Henry Jenkinson

Raphael Akuwudike

Alice Hayes

David Semark

Perry Williams


Director:  Robert Icke

Designer: Hildegard Bechtler

Lighting Designer:  Lee Curran

Sound Designer: Gareth Fry

Composer: Laura Marling

Fight Director: Kev McCurdy


Running Time: Three hours 40 minutes including an interval 

Booking to 22nd June 2024


The Noël Coward Theatre

85-88 St Martin’s Lane 

London WC2N 4AP

Telephone: 0844 482 5151


Tube: Leicester Square


Reviewed by Sonny Waheed at the Noël Coward 

on 12th April 2024