August 16, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part II (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

After the disappointment of Michael Boyd’s Henry IV Part I, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Richard Twyman’s Henry IV Part II is a joy to watch. Fast, funny, moving, integrated and with a unique character and flavour of its own, this production comes with a massive sigh of relief, rekindling my faith in the Histories Cycle.

So what’s changed? On the surface, not a great deal. Almost all of the company are involved in this production- only John Mackay and Roger Watkins are absent from this play. The set and costumes are the same as for the previous play, and we follow the same scenes. Yet somehow Twyman has pulled Part II back into a form that complements what has come before and what is still to come, creating a play that is a part of the cycle rather than a deviation from it – different, yet familiar and relevant.

Chief among the elements that set this above Part I are the performances. Special mentions tonight go to the criminally underused Rob Carroll as Wart, scuttling across the stage hunched up and accidentally letting off the rifle Bardolph gave him; Hannah Barrie in an almost non-speaking role but clearly having the time of her life as a lairy tavern wench; Matt Costain, revelling in an hysterical bit of physical comedy in the interval as he appropriated various ladders, bunting and deckchairs to keep the audience entertained as he set the stage for Gloucestershire; Geoffrey Freshwater as an hysterical Robert Shallow, infectious giggling and all; and Alexia Healy, who threw herself into her first major role of the cycle as Doll Tearsheet.

The change wasn’t only in the excellent supporting performances, but in the leads too. Where Hal was too severe in Part I, Falstaff too serious and the King too embittered to fit with the subject matter, here the text lent itself far better to their interpretations. David Warner’s peculiar brand of gravitas befitted Falstaff as he reclined in his armchair watching Pistol’s ranting, and also suited him in Gloucestershire as he sat courtly and bemused, letting his country fellows do their thing while raising an eyebrow quizzically. His relationship with Hal was also more comfortable, a kiss on the cheek being particularly telling as Hal said his final farewell to Falstaff before the latter headed off to war. Here, although still severe, Hal seemed to go on a genuine journey, being almost sucked back into the tavern world as he and Doll kissed on the ramp before running back to court. The final rejection was never in doubt, but Geoffrey Streatfeild managed to inject some more humanity into his prince, allowing us to feel the pain. The play closed with the two of them staring at each other through the bars of the cage that had been lowered over Falstaff.

Clive Wood made an early appearance for the first time this evening, standing on the balcony while Poins and Hal discussed the ailing King in their first scene. This made far more sense of Hal’s intensity, visually demonstrating the hold that the image of his father had over him and helping us to understand his rejection of Poins (who appeared on a balcony in the final scene, already at a distance from the king but still watching his rejection of others). The King’s presence infected the play, and his final scene with Hal was genuinely moving, the two lying on the floor together as father and son finally reconciled.

Ghosts, notably missing from Part I, made a welcome return here, with the ghost of Bagot opening the play, dragging in Richard’s coffin from which the dead king arose. Bagot then became Rumour, wandering the world of the play and bringing ill news, including the head of Northumberland. The ghost of Richard likewise appeared on a couple of occasions, hovering over both the Archbishop and the King, advancing on the latter at the close of Act One. Finally, in a future echo, the young Henry VI appeared to Hal as the Lord Chief Justice (Richard Cordery on solid form) besought the new king to consider the future of his children.

It wasn’t all perfect. Certain members of the cast were less than word-perfect, a footlight got smashed by Anthony Shuster as he left the stage and the rebels were frankly boring (though livened up by Chris McGill’s Prince John). Some of the acting wasn’t great either- Ann Ogbomo (Lady Percy), Keith Bartlett (Northumberland) and Antony Bunsee (Scroop), who have all excelled elsewhere, seemed less comfortable in their roles here, intoning their lines in a dull monotone. Bartlett did compensate though with a wonderful moment in the first scene where he entirely lost control, having to be restrained from hurting himself by his men.

This was a production which felt like part of a sequence. The references to events past and present, the re-used motifs and the intelligent performances brought the things we loved about the other plays back to the fore, but the play remained equally distinct in spirit- very funny scenes in Gloucester (an enormous bale of hay falling from the ceiling and barely hitting Davy being a highlight), an energetic tavern scene (Nicholas Asbury as Pistol deserves special mention for soldiering on even when tripping accidentally over a hatch and falling, not missing a word. He then tumbled convincingly through the trap doors after being smashed over the head by a bottle wielded by Bardolph!) and a surprisingly good impression of the sibling politics between the young princes, conjured effectively by Luke Neal, Antony Shuster and Geoffrey Streatfeild in mere seconds of stage time.

It’s anyone’s guess which direction the company will take Henry V in, but for now I’m just relieved that Henry IV has been vindicated. Where Part I disappointed, Part II made up for it in spades. I hope Richard Twyman, the young director given the chance to take over this one play while Michael Boyd does the other seven, gets the credit he deserves.

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