Theater Review: Henry IV Part 2, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Following the brilliant Henry IV, Part 1 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I saw Part 2 a few nights ago. I’ve always preferred Part 1 as a play, and in this production, it’s clear which part stands out.

Henry IV Part 1 is a big play, with big themes and scenes. There is the boisterous tavern scene, the thrilling battle, and the intrigue in between. Part 2 came off as a small play, with a lot of small scenes, and little connection between them.

In Part 1, we see the relationship between prince Hal and Falstaff, and we especially see the foreshadowing of what will happen once Hal becomes king Henry V. In the riotous scene at the tavern in Eastcheap, where Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Henry IV, Hal’s father, the prince shows, in just a few words, that he will eventually turn his back on Falstaff. This is the key moment of Part 2, at the very end of the play, showing that this story is much less about the title character – Henry IV – than it is about Faltsaff and the future Henry V.

PARTII-12-541X361.jpg

There’s a lot to get through, however, before reaching that point, and this RSC production is excellent in some ways, but mediocre in others. There are a number of set-pieces, in the tavern at Eastcheap, with Falstaff and others, and with Justice Shallow, an old friend of Falstaff’s, who the latter visits to find some soldiers. There is much comedy in this play, but it’s not as successful as in Part 1 At times, I was wondering if someone else had written parts of it, as the language is as coarse as Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, which I saw recently. Sure, this is Shakespeare, but for some reason, it just doesn’t gel that way Part 1 does.

There are some powerful scenes, though. One is where Hal comes to the bedside of his dying father, and, thinking him dead, takes his crown and leaves the room. When Henry IV awakens, he finds the crown missing, and the subsequent scene, with Henry IV lamenting his son’s seemingly swift self-crowning, and Hal explaining his gesture to the king, is very moving.

PARTII-9-541X361.jpg

The minor characters show great talent, in spite of the less brilliant story than in Part 1. In both parts, Paola Dionisotti is excellent as Mistress Quickly, though I had trouble understanding her accent at times; Joshua Richards is wonderful as Bardolf, in spite of his limited role in the play; and Oliver Ford Davies was luminous as Justice Shallow, a character I’ve always felt to be thin and uninteresting.

PARTII-15-541X361.jpg

In the end, the play comes down to those few lines where Hal, now Henry V, renounces his past life of carousing, and with it, his friendship with Falstaff:

FALSTAFF.
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING.
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenour of our word.
Set on.

Falstaff is unshaken, thinking that Henry is just pretending to criticize him, and says, “I shall be sent for soon at night.”

This is not to be, and Falstaff is adrift.

PARTII-7-541X361.jpg

The entire play comes together at this moment, but I didn’t feel that this production gave this scene very much emotion. Something about the scene made it seem inconsequential. It had no gravitas; there were only a few characters on stage – Falstaff and his friends, and Henry and a small retinue – and it seemed small compared to its importance.

This production had an interesting beginning. The part of Rumour, who speaks a prologue, is played by Antony Byrne, who also plays Pistol. He begins by making an announcement asking people to turn off their cellphones and digital watches. Then says, “Turn off your phones. And open your ears.” He then comes on stage in jeans and a Rolling Stones t-shirt, and starts speaking the prologue, but is stopped briefly by a ring on his iPhone. He replies to a text, then takes a selfie, and speaks the rest of the prologue, while hashtags, such as #openyourears, are projected on the stage and the scrim. This was a delightfully modern way to open the play, and it worked very well.

On the other hand, the epilogue was cut. It’s not important to the story, but it does set out what would happen in the follow-up, Henry V. The play ended here with Falstaff’s young page coming out into the middle of the stage, then the lights cutting out. I felt that ending made no sense.

All in all, it was an agreeable night, but, as expected, much less so than Part 1. If you can see both, you should; if not, see Part 1, which is a memorable production and features a brilliant Falstaff.