Master of Play (director), Tim Carroll and his star and artistic director, Mark Rylance, have managed to transform much of this history into a comedy. They achieve this by wringing every possible ounce of humour from the text and then adding physical effect and extemporising, sometimes far beyond Shakespeare.
The overall impact is impressive with Rylance's King stealing the show. He does this not only as a young joker but more seriously as a man trying to hold his warring kingdom together. His final speeches and glorious death are touching and demonstrate that Richard was a man of substance during his short reign.
Rylance's most recent predecessors in this role include Sam West and Fiona Shaw for the RSC and the National respectively. He is fit to compare with both of these fine actors and this performance suggests that he has certainly admired the latter.
As one has come to expect at the Globe, the pomp and ceremony are wonderful. Tim Carroll makes sure that his strong cast uses every inch of the space with which he is becoming so familiar.
The costumes designed by Luca Costigliolo and Jenny Tiramani are colourful and those worn by the King and Bolingbroke (played by Liam Brennan), his putative successor, have symbolic meaning. Almost throughout, the pretender wears black while his King chooses green, gold and white (looking like a forlorn Pierrot) at various stages. Add William Lyons' period music from a six-piece band and a lavish, convertible throne, and the production seems extremely authentic.
The infighting between the two factions of the same family is well depicted. It reaches a head as Bill Stewart's Duke of York, uncle to both rivals, does not know which way to turn and literally runs around in circles. The ladies (played by men in this production), including an attractive Queen (Michael Brown), allow one to suspend disbelief as they despair of and fight for their menfolk.
The main rivalry between cousins is always to the fore but is tempered by their history. At the end, Henry IV's eulogy of sadness at the death of the man that he has usurped seems genuine. His forgiveness of another cousin, Aumerle (Chu Omambala), seems to permit a more stable future. Henry only relents though, following a hilarious verbal joust between that unlucky man's parents, Mother (Peter Shorey,) in particular, being more than a match for the King.
On occasion, the comedy slightly overwhelms the tragedy for both the "scepter'd isle" and its warring inhabitants but this is an enjoyably production. It almost goes without saying that Mark Rylance is in sparkling form, as ever, both in delivering speeches, whether powerful or moving and as comedian.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher