It’s often said that these two plays are about fatherhood – about the broken relationship between the King and his son and the comparison between Hal’s relationship with Falstaff and the relationship between Northumberland and Percy.

But what Michael Boyd brings out too is the more human relationship – this is not just about producing an heir to be proud. Clive Wood’s king struggles to acknowledge the love for his son - something that Geoffrey Streatfeild’s equally cold Hal finds tough to reciprocate. David Warner’s Falstaff is a perfect target for Hal’s affections; Warner imbues the old rogue with a warmth and attractiveness that’s often missing – he can’t be too much of a grotesque or he would scarcely inspire such affection in Hal and his followers. What’s missing though is Hal’s eager participation in the dissolute lifestyle: Streatfield gives us plenty of the future Henry V but little of the wild and reckless Hal.

The ghost of Richard II hangs over these plays (in this production, literally) as Henry comes to terms with what he has done and where he has to marry up the legitimacy of his usurping the crown with the actions of being a strong king, particularly in the face of Hotspur’s rebellion.

It’s easy to see why Lex Shrapnel’s Hotspur would an object for admiration. Despite his fearsome temper, his is a highly charismatic portrayal, a clear figurehead for the forces ranged against the king In many productions, Hotspur tends to dominate the action and this is especially true here.

There’s often a feeling of an anti-climax in the second play as there’s a Hotspur-sized hole to fill but director Richard Twyman (this is the only play in the cycle not directed by Michael Boyd) ensures that our attention doesn’t flag.

Of course, he’s helped by Warner’s performance but the ensemble acting is particularly strong in these two plays. The Eastcheap action takes its cue from Maureen Beattie’s ebullient Mistress Quickly and the Gloucestershire episode is genuinely funny, thanks mainly to Geoffrey Freshwater’s Shallow, gleefully reminiscing on a lurid past with almost schoolboy glee.

- Maxwell Cooter


Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from August 2007 and these productions' original run at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The RSC is now halfway through its Shakespeare history play cycle and there are signs of fatigue, and not just in the audience. The ensemble is predominantly mixed ability male, director Michael Boyd’s aesthetic in the vasty Courtyard arena anti-lyrical, noisy, leather-clad and butch.

Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV – Boyd directs Richard and is associate director to Richard Twyman on the Henries; all three are designed by Tom Piper -- have played for a few weeks and finish this Saturday (the craziness of the RSC scheduling remains a wonder to behold), returning with the new Henry V in November. The Henry VI trilogy and Richard III are re-launched next February, and the complete cycle of eight plays will then come to the Roundhouse in London.

Will this project come to be compared with the great Wars of the Roses sequence in the 1960s, or even the Terry Hands and Adrian Noble subsequent RSC cycles? At the moment, I doubt it. One link with the first RSC history plays bonanza is David Warner, returning to the company and to Stratford after forty years, as Falstaff. In a previous incarnation he was a matchless Henry VI, a near perfect Richard II and a delightful Mouldy in the Part Two recruitment scenes.

And what a pleasure it is to see him again, however miscast. Inside this fat, padded performance (his white shirt seems to have been stuffed with a random selection of vegetables) is a thin actor trying to get out. Warner’s Falstaff has the sweet, loveable innocence of a naughty schoolboy, best when covering his tracks.

The great mock father and son scenes with Geoffrey Streatfeild’s energetic but deeply unappealing Prince Hal are played with the casual insouciance and warmth of the genuinely great actor; Warner’s Falstaff is certainly the nicest you could imagine.

The best production of the three three-hour plays is easily that of Richard II, with a superb Richard from Jonathan Slinger, bringing out both his French and his feminine sides. Slinger has an astonishing voice, swooping effortlessly between bass and falsetto with no breaks. He shows how the kingdom is bartered for hedonism before being torn apart with the rise of Clive Wood’s powerful, chest-puffing Bolingbroke.

As in Henry VI, the thrust stage is dominated by a huge rusting steel cylinder, which belches forth the court of Richard in a slow dance. Forbes Masson’s Bagot is a key witness here, even oddly assuming Exton’s murderous role at Pomfret Castle. The ghost of the Duke of Gloucester hovers, too, and Slinger stalks the “divine right of kings” speeches later on. Masson sidles through the Henries as a potently insidious figure of Rumour.

Invention and ideas flag later on; or that could have been just me. The Gloucester scenes, with Geoffrey Freshwater’s spittle-flecked Shallow beautifully counter-pointed by Sandy Neilson’s ruminative Silence, are more coarse-grained than elegiac. But there is much to enjoy in Maureen Beattie’s glorious Glaswegian Mistress Quickly, presiding over an Eastcheap brothel of slamming trap doors and huge red swags; Nicholas Asbury’s fire-breathing Pistol; the cold-blooded entrapment of the rebel lords; and Richard’s gardeners spraying the audience with weed-killer.

- Michael Coveney