Henry IV Part II / Richard II

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
(2008)

Henry IV production photo

The first cycle of Shakespeare's histories, revived by director Michael Boyd, bought 'golden opinions' for the RSC and rightly so. The productions of Henry VI Parts I, II and III - though not Richard III - showcased the RSC's artistic director's strengths - a thrilling physicality, intelligent use of all the auditorium, and the ability to lay bare the pattern and themes running through the cycle.

The second, later, tetralogy, by any judgement considerably the finer, ought to offer even greater riches - Tynan, a fair judge of these things, thought Henry IV Parts I and II offered two of the most rewarding evenings in the theatre. In practice though it doesn't work out that way. Henry IV Part II, admittedly a work on which the shadows have already begun to fall, proves a glum affair.

David Warner, a deeply-troubled Hamlet in his debut RSC performance many years ago, is wildly miscast and ill at ease as the fantastical Falstaff. It is a performance which bears out the truth of Cyril Connolly's observation that inside every fat man is a thin man wildly signalling to be let out. Not only does he prove here not to be witty in himself, he fails to engender wit in others. But the blame for this can't be laid at Warner's door alone. His partner-in-crime Geoffrey Streatfield is a singularly charmless Hal. The early tavern scenes pass for little and it is not until we reach the orchard scenes with Shallow and Silence and their deepening melancholy that the production begins to gel.

It was a relief then to find in the arrival of Richard II a drastic betterment. At the heart of the production is a charismatic performance by Jonathan Slinger as the doomed king, It is certainly a vast improvement on his loud and two-dimensional performance as Richard III and confirms that Slinger's abilities extend beyond the considerable comic gifts shown already as Fluellen in Henry V and in the RSC production, two years ago, of The Comedy of Errors.

Slinger still lets himself down by a tendency to rant from time to time and to emphasise certain words without either a regard for the rhythm of the verse or the meaning of the text but it is still, all in all, a considerable achievement. He is well-supported, in particular by Richard Cordery as the Duke of York.

Followers of the Histories cycle will know what to expect in terms of the staging; Boyd makes full use of the vertical as well as the thrust stage, with characters descending from and ascending to the roof. The bizarre props dreamt up for the joust between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, however, which prompted laughter from the audience, should have been abandoned in rehearsals along with the idea of suspending a piano player from the ceiling.

London audiences will soon have the opportunity of experiencing the complete Histories cycle themselves. While Henry IV can't be recommended with any great enthusiasm, Richard II can and should be at the top of the list.

Reviewer: Pete Wood