Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Henry IV Part II

William Shakespeare
Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal Bath
(2011)

Henry IV Part II production photo

For some, Henry IV Part I and II are among the finest, if not the finest, plays Shakespeare ever wrote. Certainly they are among his most panoramic as they range from the court to the shires, the tavern to the battlefield, with a cast of characters as rich and as diverse as any ever put before an audience.

There is no doubting then the ambition and scope of the plays. But while acknowledging their riches, foremost of which of course is the figure of Falstaff, there are those, among whom I count myself, who feel that the crown placed on their heads by the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Bloom sits uneasily.

Henry IV Part II is certainly the weaker of the two works being, essentially, a re-run of Part I in a minor key. The recent production at the Globe starring Roger Allam was noticeable for the way things sagged when Falstaff and Hal were off stage. Peter Hall is a much more skilful and seasoned hand and keeps things ticking over during the longeurs but even so the time still drags.

As with Part I the production is marked by a sense of clarity. But it is also burdened by a self-consciousness so that we are too often aware of the theatricality of proceedings and not just when the characters address us directly. In addition, the decision to set the action in Victorian times reinforces the sense of Pickwickian bonhomie and good cheer which rather glosses the cruelty and darkness. Shakespeare was not writing The Old Curiousity Shop.

And fine though Desmond Barritt is, and I wish I could recall better his performance in the same plays for the RSC some ten years ago, it is too benign and lacking in the spirit of riot. We do not really feel why, despite hs being such an evident rogue, everyone, including Hal, is so in thrall to him, and therefore when the now crowned King rejects him it lacks sufficient punch.

The simplest way of expressing this is to say that the production has many of the virtues and the failings of a Globe production of Shakespeare and indeed in many ways it would be best served by the venue. As with the Globe, the action is bathed in a midday sun which obliterates the valley and the shade.

For many, as the popularity of the Globe attests, this production and its companion, will be very entertaining. And there are many fine things including the wonderful set by Simon Higlett, David Yelland's grizzled Henry IV, a bull of man, tethered to the stake and baited by cares, and Michael Mears skilfully doubling as Bardolph and the Machiavellian Archbishop of York. The orchard scene with Justices Silence and Shallow is a bit on the fruity side of things but falls short of what can best be described as Callow-esque. Worth considering.

Pete Wood also reviewed "Henry IV Part I" at Bath

Reviewer: Pete Wood