And with it comes a sense of Shakespeare's art developing as the surviving chief protagonists from the first chapter swim more clearly into focus. Peace with France has not brought peace at home; Part Two charts the machinations which will result in the full-scale internecine violence of the final episode.
Clive Wood as Richard, Duke of York, reprises a powerful performance from Michael Boyd’s 2001 production, while Geoffrey Freshwater as Cardinal Beaufort grows ever more like the vile Bishop of Bath and Wells of Blackadder. There’s a fine performance too from Maureen Beattie as the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, haughty and power-hungry before ambition and plotting undo her.
Chuk Iwuji, as Henry VI, a wide-eyed innocent in Part One, finds an eloquent humanity as his kingdom spirals into the abyss, and there’s fine work too from Katy Stephens as his beautiful but scheming consort, Queen Margaret.
But if the chief protagonist in the first instalment is Joan, then the second is dominated by Jack Cade who, urged on by the Duke of York, raises rebellion and marches on London. Like the later mob scenes of Julius Caesar, what ensues is both comic and brutal, but is here played chiefly for laughs. John McKay, who earlier played the French Dauphin, seizes his chance gratefully.
Boyd thankfully trims some of the rhetorical excesses - endless elaborate similes which often begin "like to" - and deftly brings out the patterning of the trilogy - fathers mourning the death of sons and sons mourning their fathers, the omnipresence of death. Just as the walking corpse of Henry V opened proceedings, Humphrey's bloody and baleful body stalks the carnage here, a reminder, as Macbeth had it, that "blood will have blood".
Though the martial clamour of Part One has subsided, Part Two is not short on spectacle or thrills, which are heightened by James Jones' and Tom Woolf's percussive score. Credit too to Tom Piper's fine design.
Ben Jonson may have dismissed this one of Shakespeare’s plays as a fight between three rusty swords, but inside he must have hated his friend and rival's clear success.
- Pete Wood