Henry IV Part 2 By William Shakespeare RSC, The Barbican Although this play follows directly on from Part One, it’s a play that can be seen in its own right. But it will certainly be enjoyed more if you’ve already seen the earlier play as many incidents in it are referred to, without explanation. Indeed, there’s evidence that Shakespeare intended Henry IV to be just one single work.
Part Two is much more about the relationship between king and prince. With the figure of Hotspur now dead and no longer dominating the action, the king can turn to thoughts of his succession.
The comic action is now between Falstaff and other companions, notably Pistol and Bardolph, who has a much bigger role than in Part One. And of course, there are the Gloucestershire scenes with Justices Shallow and Silence to entertain the audience. We’re quickly drawn into the action. Director Michael Attenborough continues the cracking pace that he set in Part One, but the historical action takes a smaller part here.
Just as in Richard II, much of the play is taken up by the ruminations of the nature of kingship and the responsibility it places on the person of the king. David Troughton’s Henry has visibly aged since Part One and he genuinely seems worn down by the affairs of state. The old fire returns, briefly, when the prince walks off with his crown (having assumed that the king was dead) and the scene of reconciliation that follows is a genuinely moving one.
William Houston’s Hal is much better as the roistering youth. He has a habit, beloved of modern politicians, of listening to other speakers with a sort of slack-jawed grin. Perhaps this is going to be a king always ready to take the Third Way. But the imperious way that he dismisses Falstaff suggests not. And although Desmond Barrit’s Falstaff tries to convince himself that the king is only play-acting, this is a rueful Sir John who knows the game’s up. Barrit continues the excellent impression he gave in Part One; a superb Falstaff, fully self-aware of his faults and his failing powers.
But the evening is almost stolen by Benjamin Whitrow’s Shallow and Peter Copley’s Silence. In just two scenes, they manage to captivate the audience. Their musings on their dissolute pasts emphasise a strong theme of the play, that of failing powers and the transient nature of human existence. For as Silence says, “it is certain to all; all shall die”.
This underlying air of melancholy makes Part Two a more rounded play than its predecessor. And this production has drawn out every nuance of the text. But you have to see the two together to get the full impact – and these fine productions are certainly worth seeing.
Note: The following review dates from this production's original run in Stratford in July 2000. Michael Attenborough's production of Henry IV Part 2 is the third in the This England sequence of eight of Shakespeare's history plays presented by the RSC to mark the turning of the millennium. Although the casting remains constant throughout the sequence, the plays are being presented in contrasting styles in different theatres and each director works independently.
This instalment takes the story of the fifteenth century monarchy up to the death of Henry IV and so brings to a close one of the outstanding performances of our age. David Troughton's portrayal of the king, sustained over three plays, is a remarkable achievement. Here we see this powerful man, before a figure of terrifying authority, declining into sickness and old age. Wracked with guilt over his usurpation of the throne and murder of Richard II, full of doubt about the ability of his wayward son Hal to succeed him, Troughton moves us to pity for the dying king. The scene in which Hal tries on the crown before his father is dead, is as poignant and honest a piece of theatre as you are likely to see in a long while.
Although Troughton's performance dominates this play, he's on stage for less than half-an-hour. Desmond Barrit's Falstaff is at the centre of the action. He has a fine line to steer between the comedy and tragedy of the role. There are enough laughs along the way, but it's the impact of Falstaff's rejection by Hal, when he becomes king, that finally vindicates Barrit's essentially tragic reading of the role. Fine comic performances by Sandra Voe as Mistress Quickly and Arthur Cox as Bardolph redress the balance.
Benjamin Whitrow, who appeared to have been ideally cast as Justice Shallow, is curiously disappointing. But this is more than made up for by the wonderful Peter Copley as Justice Silence. Copley, now well into his eighties, is a joy to watch as he uses the skill of a lifetime and the innocence of a child to make his drunken dance both hilarious and profoundly moving.
One of the main themes of the play is the gradual maturing of Prince Hal, who first indulges himself in London low-life, then, when his father dies, turns his back on his old drinking companions and takes on the full responsibilities of kingship. William Houston charts the course well, but never seems so much at home as when he has the crown on his head. His performance as Henry V in the next play in the sequence is eagerly anticipated.
Henry IV Part 2 opened at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29 June 2000 (previews from 21 June) and continues there in repertory until 7 October 2000.