HENRY IV PART TWO
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 26th July 2014
On balance I prefer Part One as a play – I think there’s more to it – but that is not to take anything away from this production of the sequel. There are some wonderful moments here, expertly delivered.
It starts with a bit of a scare. The prologue, “Rumour”, comes on; with his long hair, black jeans and Rolling Stones T-shirt he looks like a heavy metal roadie. Hashtagged words are flash-projected on the back wall and you begin to wonder if something radical has been decided since the curtain call for Part One. Mercifully, it hasn’t. As the play begins, there is a smooth transition to period costume, and we’re back in that world again, having been admonished rather cleverly to ensure our mobile phones, pagers and digital watches (does anyone still have one of those?) are all switched off.
In the title role, Jasper Britton is captivating as the vulnerable and ailing King, having pangs of conscience over the path he took to the throne. It’s not really about him though. We want – and we get – to see more of Antony Sher’s avuncular rapscallion Falstaff. The comic scenes are meant to counterpoint the political ones, but as always, they overshadow them. An absolute treat is Oliver Ford Davies’s Justice Shallow in a kind of double act with Jim Hooper’s Justice Silence. The recruitment scene is a highlight with a host of unsuitable recruits, among them the excellent Youssef Kerkour as Bullcalf and Simon Yadoo as Mouldy.
Prince Hal is game for a laugh but his father’s ill health gives him pause. Alex Hassell is charismatic as the wayward royal. When he realises Dad’s death is imminent, he has a change of conscience and a change of heart. The father and son deathbed scene of recrimination and reconciliation is superbly done. Director Gregory Doran delivers the play’s greatest hits – there is a lot of album filler though: scenes of rebels, opposed to the king, are just standing around and talking, and lack the energy of the pub scenes.
Antony Byrne is a scary, Begbie of a Pistol, with his hair tall like a toy troll’s. An aggressive drunk – but is it the drink that makes him mad? We remember he is a war veteran and perhaps that is at the root of his excessive behaviour and crazy ramblings. I adore Joshua Richard’s deadpan Bardolph, and there is a remarkable performance by the very young Luca Saraceni-Gunner as Falstaff’s page, whose long-suffering looks to the audience show expert comic timing.
The most powerful punch comes at the end, when Hal, now Henry V, spurns Falstaff in public. It is heart-breaking, and Sher’s brave face in the light of such humiliation and rejection is touching.
I can only hope the RSC has already signed up Alex Hassell for Henry V – and for everything else, for that matter!