Henry IV Pt. 2

William Shakespeare
RNT Olivier

Henry IV Part 2 is the most domestic and tender play in Shakespeare's epic History cycle. Whereas almost all of the other plays are constantly warlike and bloody, featuring white and red roses at each other's throats, this one, often quirkily and humorously, looks at human beings and their foibles.

First among these, and very much centre-stage, is Michael Gambon's even more rotund Sir John Falstaff, a cowardly knave devoted to his own safety, stomach and in his mind, his manhood.

In Nick Hytner's production, the other stars - and really his finest achievement across the two plays - are the Gloucestershire Yeomen, Justices Shallow and Silence. It helps that these former childhood friends of Falstaff are played by excellent character actors, John Wood and Adrian Scarborough. They form a comic double-act who have just enough of reality about them to be perfectly believable and extremely funny.

Scarborough, who had only a few minutes before been striding around on stage as Prince Hal's sidekick, the obnoxious Ned Poins, was transformed into a pale man who looked to be a centenarian at the very least. His initial sideways shuffle down a steep ramp on to the stage is funny enough but becomes doubly so as he has to be caught, like ancient human cannonball or possibly medicine ball, following an untimely loss of balance. Even the effort of speaking seems likely to be more than his weak body can withstand.

The red-faced Wood combines with him well, constantly reminiscing inaccurately about the long ago joys that they had shared with Falstaff. They also bring out the best in Roger Sloman's red-nosed Bardolph, Sir John straggly-haired and infinitely gloomy aide de camp. To add to the fun, they introduce an accompanying band of merry but unlikely soldiers.

Falstaff may well be into his seventies but he has lost none of his zest for life still seeking money, food, drink and surprisingly having two doting women, Mistress Quickly, played by Susan Brown, who sues for marriage and Eve Myles' loose Doll Tearsheet, for some reason looking like a latter-day Goth.

There are more serious issues afoot in this play as well. We first see Jeffrey Kissoon's ill Percy believing that his son Hotspur has been victorious but then, having been disabused, finding a vein of anger that lifts him out of his wheelchair in his grief and desire for revenge.

His counterpart, David Bradley as a weakening King Henry fares little better. He is still concerned about the country's future, as his son returns to his gallivanting ways and enemies gather on three different fronts.

In fact, his successor is never quite the rabble-rouser that he was in the first part and, by the end, Matthew MacFadyen signals the heir's maturity for his role as king by forgiving the man who had put him into prison, the Lord Chief Justice played by Iain Mitchell.

The fight to keep the country intact is another matter. The cause is helped though by the treachery of the leaders of the king's forces in the North, led by Samuel Roukin as Hal's brother, John of Lancaster.

At the last, as he lies on his deathbed and only after a misunderstanding over the premature use of the regal Crown, King Henry is reconciled with his eldest son before going to meet his maker.

The two plays together comprise a six-hour epic that combines comedy and drama to great effect. Nick Hytner is best served by his comedians led by Sir Michael Gambon but also draws a fine performance from David Harewood, who makes a fine Harry Hotspur. Since the two plays form part of the 2005 Travelex £10 season and feature a popular theatrical knight, it seems assured that they will sell out very quickly.

<< Henry IV Pt.1

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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