Henry IV, Part 2 (Online review)

Henry IV, Part 2 (Online review)

The review of Henry IV, Part One appears here

Sequels to staged productions – how many can you think of right now? The received wisdom is that follow-ons never quite live up to the expectations created by the original. Of course, there are exceptions to this sweeping generalisation; most agree that Godfather II is better than the original and bigger successes have been claimed for later episodes in series such as Star Wars, Toy Story, Paddington and both the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. These are all films of course so don’t answer the original question. The truth is that there are not many sequels to stage plays – Shakespeare’s histories aside and it’s likely that these were written more or less concurrently and then divided up later. And so we come to Henry IV, Part Two, which is most definitely a sequel.


A sequel, of course, should not just simply repeat the first instalment and Shakespeare does this by shifting focus in the second part and painting upon an even wider canvas than before. Whereas Part One had much to do with recreating the politics and battles, Part Two tends to look at the effects of these things especially upon the people who Falstaff earlier describes as “Food for powder”. Though there are still scenes set at the court and battlefield and the contrasting scenes in the Eastcheap tavern are most definitely present and correct we also get to see what is going on in the countryside as the common folk struggle to make sense of it all. To ensure that the pieces are unified, however, there is still plenty on the theme of fathers and sons both biological and substitutional – even England itself is seen as a wayward offspring that needs to be got under control in order to thrive.

Henry IV Part 2 production photos_Kwame Lestrade _c_ RSC_RSC_HF2_KL_DRESS-139_1

Further interest is generated by the inclusion of some new memorable characters or giving more to do to some established ones. Paola Dionisotti falls into this latter character as Mistress Quickly becomes more prominent. A veteran of classical theatre, she makes a memorable figure of the tavern hostess having a love/hate relationship with Falstaff who owes her money and a good else besides. New to the tavern scenes also are Nia Gwynne as a rough and ready Doll Tearsheet and Antony Byrne as a shock headed and totally madcap Pistol. While his bizarre use of language and aggression make him a difficult character to put across, Byrne gives as good an account as I have seen and remains in the memory long after the final curtain. Also making a first appearance is country justice Shallow and his cousin Silence. In the hands of the lugubrious Oliver Ford Davies and the engaging Jim Hooper this classic double act almost steals the show.


I say almost because, of course, it is still Antony Sher who dominates throughout. By this stage, aided by Sher’s perfect characterisation, there is much more depth and resonance in evidence than in the first play. The high points of comedy are still there (e.g. the homage to sack) but the moments of melancholy rumination are given due weight and purpose and his brusque rejection at the end is truly affecting. What strikes about Sher’s performance, especially as the pair of play’s progresses, is the measured way in which he delivers the language. Here is a character who interacts with others on his own terms and will not be hurried; stately as a galleon Falstaff/Sher sails through proceedings dragging others in his wake, largely unruffled and confident in the force of his own personality. To repeat what I said before the performance “is one of major importance”.


Although he does it well there is still insufficient for Jasper Britton to get his teeth into in the role of the titular king – indeed he does not even appear until just before the interval. Mostly sick and dying Shakespeare does not even give him a death scene on stage and it’s reported almost as an afterthought. Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is an improvement on Part One as the character comes into his own and Hassell starts to speak with measured authority. Joshua Richards continues to impress as Bardolph, and the ensemble remain consistently convincing as they double and treble roles.


I had thought I preferred Part One of this pair of plays but, like Godfather II, I’ve decided that actually with its wider sweep of characters and it’s more varied tone that it’s this second that comes over best. Perhaps that’s because I know it a little less well or because it dwells rather more on the aging process and I’m now in a better position to appreciate this aspect. Either way Greg Doran’s very good production of a complex pair of histories definitely earns them a place in the ranks of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.

Production photos by Kwame Lestrade

Henry IV, Part 2 is available via subscription services Marquee TV – click here – and Digital Theatre – click here

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