Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: Laura Maley
Brought to life in 2012 as two thirds of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown Shakespeare trilogy (beginning with Richard II) masterminded by Sam Mendes, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Gregory Doran brings Henry IV Parts I &II on tour, after a critically acclaimed run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Where Part I sees King Henry prepare for war and his son, Prince Hal, face up to responsibilities of family and throne, Part II sees the King’s health fading and Hal chooses between duty and loyalty to an old friend. On this tour, Henry IV Part II alternates performances with Henry IV Part I using the same cast. Many in the audience are likely to attend both productions which one would expect would reward them with greater depth and richer insight into the stories and characters. Taken on its own, Henry IV Part II, still has power and entertains but never quite shakes the feeling of being a play-between-plays which, at three hours, can feel like a long stop-gap.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design has the stage lined on all sides with wooden slats, like unplastered interior walls. There are rarely-used balconies on either side, and for some scenes a separate low stage appears. The changes in location are supported by Tim Mitchell and Simon Spencer’s lighting design which often adds real intensity. This additional stage works best as the King’s bedroom, cast in reverent and atmospheric darkness. It proves as effective when employed quite differently as Mistress Quickly’s tavern when so many characters are packed in that there is no choice but to ramp up tensions between them.
A slower first half includes sometimes hurried dialogue which describes the complexities rather than showing the audience and as a consequence, while there is undoubtedly turmoil, it is not always clear exactly what that upheaval is. After the interval, the story comes across more effectively, bringing with it a declaration of peace and arrests for treason. What is clear throughout is that the deeds of the past weigh very heavily for everyone involved.
Both plays are significant for introducing audiences to Prince Hal, with later play Henry V dedicated to him. In this production Alex Hassell’s Hal is clearly transitioning from reckless youth and approaching maturity with obvious fearful indecision. King Henry and Hal’s scenes at the King’s deathbed are very moving, and Jasper Britton’s breathless regal performance is particularly impressive, with regret on his mind.
One of Shakespeare’s most colourful characters, Sir John Falstaff is brilliantly given life by Anthony Sher in an exuberant and engaging performance. It’s a delight to watch Sher, and the audience hangs on his every carefully-delivered word. His poetic dedication to sherry/sac in particular is nothing short of unadulterated indulgence. He has fun with the physicality of the rôle too. Falstaff has strong support being aided, abetted, and sometimes confounded by companion Bardolph (put-upon and joked-about Joshua Richards), his young page (playful Luca Saraceni-Gunner), Mistress Quickly (a victimised but spiky and tenacious Paola Dionisotti) and later with the rather charming, nostalgic Justice Shallow (wonderfully warm and funny Oliver Ford Davies) and the somewhat otherworldly anarchic Pistol (Antony Byrne).
The whole Falstaff plot – his predatory cunning not entirely disguised, if often forgiven by his comedy – is geared up to the very end of the play which Doran directs with a great sense of occasion. Prince Hal is finally King and the audience is left in a state of some shock at his denial of Falstaff and the heartbreaking final sight of his boy, dwarfed on the darkened stage, alone and with an uncertain future. It’s a clever way to end the production, as Doran echoes the versatility of Shakespeare’s ability to give audiences the full range of human experience.
Runs in Rep with Part I until Saturday 25 October 2014