Shakespeare's History Cycle

Richard II – Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 – Henry V
Royal Shakespeare Company

JOnathan Slinger at Richard II

Directed by Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic director, Shakespeare’s history cycle, premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon and now in London at the reconstructed Round House, is one of the major theatrical events of the twenty-first century, a marathon for actors and audiences alike.

Richard II

Richard, a born actor, loves the trappings of majesty. Jonathan Slinger’s skipping, ambling, effeminate Richard is every inch a quean, a gay icon, whom the manly Hotspur, surprisingly, describes as a “sweet and lovely rose.”

Slinger’s face is blanched, his lips are rouged, his hair is frizzy ginger, his finger nails are painted, and his shoes are as red as Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz. The voice is falsetto; the humour is sarcastic and camp.

Slinger sometimes looks like John Hurt playing Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant. Sometimes he looks like Quentin Crisp playing Queen Elizabeth 1 in the Sally Potter film of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

In the abdication scene Richard, full of self-pity and identifying with Christ, is asked if he is willing to give up the throne, to which he screams NO and puts the crown firmly back on his head.

He calls for a mirror so that he can study his face. Slinger removes his make-up and wig to reveal a bald head and the shock is how old he looks.

The most striking single image, however, is of Richard standing all alone on the stage whilst a seemingly endless shower of dust pours down on his head – a symbolic moment rooted in historical fact.

There are admirable performances from Clive Wood as Bolingbroke and Richard Cordery as the Duke of York.

Reviewed by Pete Wood at Stratford

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

The relations between King Henry and his son are severely strained. The heir-apparent is keeping company with thieves and lay-abouts and spending most of his time in a brothel in Eastcheap.

The main reason for seeing the two plays has always been Falstaff, who is not only witty in himself, but whose enormous bulk is the cause of wit in others. His gross obesity, his cowardice and his extravagant lies have always been good for a laugh.

Falstaff is like a surrogate father to Hal and the banter and insults they exchange are one of the many pleasures of the two plays. Falstaff is a superb entertainer, one of the best stand-up comics and raconteurs in the business. The scene when he relates how he fought with eleven men all day, when his listeners know full well that he fought with only two men and immediately ran away is hilarious.

The scene which follows - one of the great scenes in all Shakespeare – has Falstaff and Hal rehearsing what Hal will say to the king and what the king will say to Hal and it ends with Hal’s unforgettable and devastating condemnation of Falstaff.

Falstaff, a cynical, self-serving, sponging, bragging scavenger, preys on the poor, the weak, the defenseless and even the dead. Totally indifferent to the fate of the soldiers under his command, only three out of his original company of 150 men survive.

On the battle field he always arrives late and after the worst fighting is over. He carries a bottle of red paint and is quick to feign death if there is any chance of his being killed. His rejection of honour surprises nobody. The despicable scene when he claims he killed Hotspur is played here entirely for laughs

David Warner’s unexpected casting as Falstaff is a huge success. So, too, is Lex Shrapnel’s casting as the fiery Hotspur, who comes across (as he should) as far more charismatic than Hal and the real contender for the throne.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are one continuous play and should be seen together. On the press day Part 2 fell completely flat. Part 2 is admittedly not as good a play in its own right as Part I and only makes sense if you have seen Part 1.

Reviewed by Pete Wood at Stratford

Henry V

Henry IV on his deathbed advises his son that the best way to take the nobles’ minds off civil war is to engage in a war with France.

Depending on the nation’s mood, this the most jingoistic, the most patriotic and the most British play that Shakespeare wrote can be acted either as a rallying cry to arms, as Laurence Olivier did in his 1945 film, whose release coincided with D-Day during World War 2, or as an ant-war treatise, as Kenneth Branagh acted it in his 1990 film, following the Falklands War.

In his conversation with the soldiers on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry (in disguise) claims that he is but a man like everybody else; but the whole point of kingship, as he well knows, is that he cannot be like other men.

Henry is a great national hero, charismatic, brave and eloquent, the ideal medieval king, an inspiration to nobles and commoners alike. Everybody, even his enemies, sings his praises.

Geoffrey Streatfeild’s low-key and uncharismatic Henry is so ordinary that he is often indistinguishable from the rest of the cast.

The over-confident French are portrayed as absurdly conceited aerialists who literally drop in from the flies on trapezes. The Princess of France (Alexia Healy) never forgets she is a princess during the English lesson and especially when her lady-in-waiting dares to correct her.

The outstanding performance is Jonathan Slinger’s Fluellen, the pedantic Welsh officer who has studied the wars of Pompey the Great and is a great stickler for what he believes to be the protocols of war.

Reviewed by Steve Orme at Stratford

I look forward to seeing the three Henry VI plays and Richard III.

>> Shakespeare's History Cycle Part 2

"Henry IV Parts I and 2" and "Henry V", if you feel up to it, can all be seen on one day, beginning at 10.30 in the morning and ending at 11.00 at night

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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