Henry IV, Part II

William Shakespeare

Barbican

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

While the first part of Henry IV is a mix of war and plotting on the one hand and comedy on the other, the second part leans far more strongly towards the comedy and represents a pleasant interlude during these Wars of the Roses that eventually stretch to eight plays.

This part begins with rumours of rebellion floating everywhere. This is particularly well expressed by Attenbrough who places his cast in every part of the auditorium as they spread these rumours.

Falstaff soon takes over centre stage proving what a great and witty wordsmith he is. As he says, “a good wit will make use of anything”. He is given ample opportunity to do so in many set pieces as he pushes himself further and further towards the point of no return borrowing money and taking advantage of everybody that he meets.

The first half of this second part ends with a somewhat strange scene as the King contemplates his own upcoming demise. While this scene is very moving, the king is seen at one o’clock in the morning in his bedclothes but still wearing his crown. This may be taking the Divine Right of Kings too far or possibly it is intended to suggest his insecurity.

Falstaff continues to rule the roost as he ventures into the countryside attempting to pull together an army of misfits. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he reviews the halt and the lame. We also get the finest comic moment of either play here as the hunchbacked Wart is given his sword of honour which proves too much for him.

The play is not wholly given over to comedy as we see attempts to sue for peace between the two warring parties, thus moving to what looks like a happy conclusion. However, as the Yorkist side withdraws its army, Prince John of Lancaster played by a very sinister Dickon Tyrrell turns on the other side and captures the leaders of the rebellion. Prince John is the epitome of hatred and seems to be spitting fire as he does this.

While one brother demonstrates a vicious hatred, another, the young Hal, has matured. He started the previous play in dissolution and moved on to become a hero of war as he fought Harry Hotspur at Shrewsbury. He now begins to mature into a rightful future King and by the end of the play has taken on the crown and forsaken his young ways, to the great cost of his former friend John Falstaff. There is a particularly moving scene as David Troughton (Henry IV) first collapses on his deathbed and then arises for a short period, firstly to damn his son and then to make his peace with him.

Over all, these two productions are very strong and greatly enjoyable. This is enhanced by Desmond Barrit who perhaps reaches his greatest comic moment in a speech about the great benefits of sack (alcohol) given in a manner than would have done Frankie Howerd justice. He is well supported by two great character actors, Ben Whitrow as Shallow and the singing Silence, Peter Copley, whose long acting career commenced as far back as 1934.

The play ends with the very dramatic appearance of the noble Prince Hal who has now become King Henry V and the prediction that he will soon be taking his armies to France.