February 29, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part II (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Contrary to the pleasant surprise of Part I, Henry IV Part II was actually less good than I remembered. I think this was mostly down to the long day – it’s a lot of Falstaff for one day. I also think the excellent meal and beer of the Dirty Duck probably didn’t help hugely. But a weak link is not necessarily a bad one, and there was much to love about this production.

  • Matt Costain’s interval routine as Davy, setting up the stage for Gloucestershire while juggling with folding chairs and hanging from ladders, was impeccably timed and very funny. The whole thing, from getting an audience member to prop his ladder back up to the bale of hay that plunged from the ceiling, narrowly missing him, was just hysterical.
  • Rob Carroll, a wonderful comic talent in workshops, gave one of my favourite performances of the cycle so far as Wart, scuttling crab-like across the stage and accidentally setting off a rifle. The rest of the recruits were good too, particularly Antony Shuster as a narcoleptic Shadow who fainted repeatedly and Katy Stephens as the nervy Feeble, who balanced the comedy with a hint of pathos as s/he faced down the terrors of war.
  • The key scene between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and Clive Wood’s Henry IV in the bedchamber, arguing over the crown, was powerful stuff. Henry’s desperation to see the kingdom in good hands became a personal struggle with his own insecurities as a father, shaking his son in desperation, hoping against hope that he would be a true prince. Hal’s own response felt similarly desperate as he tried to reassure his dying father of his faith.
  • Keith Bartlett provided the other excellent father as Northumberland, receiving the news of Hotspur’s death. Northumberland’s guilt, particularly as he heard Coleville’s reminders that he knew the risk into which Hotspur was going and went into a kind of fit. As grieving father, Bartlett was excellent.
  • Forbes Masson as Rumour, re-emerging in Bagot’s costume pulling the coffin of Richard II, looked like he had been dragging that coffin for days, as if his punishment for murder was his very own albatross. The effect of the doubling suggested that Bagot’s sin had pulled him out of the world into his own liminal space, where as Rumour he influenced the action while always being apart from it. This was particularly emphasised at the close of Act One with Henry left alone on stage as Jonathan Slinger’s ghost of Richard descended the steps towards him while Rumour looked on. After an earlier part largely free of ghosts, it was good to see the stories linking together again.
  • Doll Tearsheet and Pistol made their marks. Nicholas Asbury as the latter ranged around the stage with energy and enough bombast to lift the Courtyard, and was very funny. His knocking out by Julius D’Silva’s Bardolph with a bottle over the head was very fun. Alexia Healy was a confident and cocksure Doll who made herself at home in the tavern and brought a sexuality to her scenes that brought to life the bawdy humour.
  • Geoffrey Freshwater as Shallow was also very good, his cheeky laughter and rambling very funny. When he nodded and winked at Falstaff as he reminded him of the night they lay together, bouncing his knees up and down and laughing wickedly, Falstaff’s uncomfortable look away spoke volumes. Sandy Neilson was also very good as Silence, both in the early scenes with a sombre deadpan way of speaking that provided the perfect foil for Shallow, and later with his singing when drunk.
  • A late entrance was made by Patrice Naiambana as Warwick. The last actor to enter the octology, Naiambana’s uniquely powerful voice and intimidating presence made an immediate impression, hinting at a man who you absolutely wanted on your side. His presence in the King’s dying scenes was reassuring.
  • Luke Neal and Antony Shuster made good use of their short time onstage as Hal’s brothers Gloucester and Clarence, creating a brief image of sibling rivalry as Neal shouted at Hal and Shuster tried to make peace. The brother prize goes to Chris McGill though, a brooding John of Lancaster who handled the climax of the political story well. Tom Hodgkins also shone in these scenes as Westmoreland, the two a clever mix of devious cunning and impressive soldiership.
  • The Archbishop of York, played by Antony Bunsee, was another short part that demanded attention. Bunsee has a fascinating voice that handles rhythm well, and the Archbishop’s speeches as a result had a peculiar resonance that I found compelling.

Despite all the good about this production, it suffered from a dip in pace at times. In particular, the long tavern scene in the first half seemed to last an age, and the end felt a bit peculiar, as if someone had forgotten their lines or was waiting for a cue- there was a sudden slow in pace, before the sudden emergence of John and the Lord Chief Justice and the lowering of the cage that captured the Eastcheap mob. The production felt weaker, but the important scenes (including the casting off of Falstaff) retained their power and left the audience hanging on for the coming wars in France…..

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