June 19, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part 2 (RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

There were over a hundred spare seats at the Broadway last night for the RSC’s live streaming of Henry IV Part 2. After years of being used to sold-out screenings of NT Live broadcasts, I can but speculate over the reasons for this.No doubt the time of year, the lack of a major film or television celebrity actor, and the relative obscurity of the play itself (particularly for those who missed Part One) may have contributed to this, but I also wonder if the live theatre to cinema boom may have reached a point of over-saturation. I’ve found myself seeing an increasing amount of Shakespeare in cinemas in recent months, and for me at least it no longer feels like an ‘event’. I hope this isn’t the case, but given that the RSC appears to be planning to broadcast all of its main house, main Shakespeare productions for the next few years, I hope the company is going to consider how to maintain the extra sense of excitement needed to entice people into a cinema to watch theatre.

The Live at Stratford experience maintains its distinctiveness from the NT Live programme, despite the employment of an Emma Freud-a-like (Suzy Klein) to host the show. It’s a very odd touch, but I love the fact that we get to see the Stage Manager call cues and begin the production from backstage, reminiscent of Olivier’s Henry V. An interval conversation with Antony Sher was brief but yielded some interesting insights into Sher’s conceptualisation of Falstaff’s setpiece speeches as a form of poetry, and the introductory film about the London spaces of the play was genuinely eye-opening, explaining some of the resonances of Shakespeare’s Eastcheap and the topography that tied together the capital. The broadcast itself, too, worked well, though still with some rough edges, particularly to do with microphones (the excellent Jennifer Kirby’s scene as Lady Percy was sadly lost). For the most part, the cameras worked well with the thrust stage, capturing the sweep of the long stage and offering a range of angles without sacrificing Gregory Doran’s (inevitably) forward-facing blocking. If I had a particular complaint, it was the frustrating incessant movement of the cameras necessitated by extreme close-up. One early long speech by Simon Yadoo‘s Lord Randolph, involving the actor pacing back and forth rapidly in agitation, made me sea-sick as the camera jerked back and forth to follow him. A greater use of mid-range and even full-stage shots would allow the blocking to be much clearer and prevent unnecessary disruptive tracking, I feel.

For the most part, however, the balance of shots served an excellent production, much more solid than Part One. As with that production, it was the supporting cast and shorter moments that were most effective here, though in Part Two that of course includes the title character. Jasper Britton was outstanding in this performance in both of his scenes. Innovatively, he entered to begin his night-walking while Paola Dionisotti’s Mistress Quickly and Luca Saraceni-Gunner’s Page dozed in the Eastcheap tavern, drawing poignant attention to the King’s isolation from his subjects as he wandered the halls alone. Later, in the production’s strongest scene, he railed energetically against Hal, screaming and gesturing frantically as he imagined Hal’s debauched rule, before clasping his son in reconciliation following Alex Hassell’s Hal’s tearful explanations. Britton’s tortured performance resonated throughout the repeated references to the ailing king and kingdom, emphasising the play’s concern with decline.

Sher’s Falstaff remained a steady presence, a sad rather than boisterous old man. His moments of energy – remonstrating with Pistol, capturing Coleville – seemed much more forced and awkward, whereas his quieter moments were quite beautiful. Sitting down with Nia Gwynne’s Doll Tearsheet, who flirted and bantered with him, Falstaff fell into a repetitive, almost helpless laugh, flattered by the attention but no longer sharp enough to engage in the back-and-forth. As he left the tavern, he burst into helpless tears, prompting Bardolph and Quickly to send Doll running after him. Falstaff’s clear terror over death came across strongly, echoed in the wonderfully comic but often melancholy Gloucester scenes. Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper made for a tremendous double act as Shallow and Silence. Silence tuned in and out of the conversations, often staring into space for long periods instead of replying to Shallow’s questions, while Shallow desperately tried to recapture memories of his youth, his leg jiggling uncontrollably as he remembered former loves. Yet Shallow also found himself bursting into tears when remembering his age in conversation with Falstaff.

This production was full of crying men, then. Yet there was much humour to be found in what is, perhaps, the funniest of Shakespeare’s histories. Leigh Quinn’s hunched Wart shamelessly plagiarised Rob Carroll’s wonderful performance in the 2007 production (though this time it was Shallow who let off a rifle accidentally), but the entire recruiting scene played amusingly, with Mouldy leering and Youssef Kerkour’s towering Bullcalf showing cowardice. Nicholas Gerard-Martin was a moving Feeble, though, taking Wart gently by the hand and swallowing his fear visibly as he stood up straight and prepared for the wars. Even in moments of purer comedy, mortality was continually at stake.

The supporting performances in this sprawling play were largely confident. Antony Byrne shone in two small roles. As Rumour, he wandered onto stage as a stagehand, in black jeans and t-shirt, and clicked a button which filled the stage with projects of Twitter hashtags and multilingual questions, linking the choric role to modern misinformation. While the conceit wasn’t followed through, Byrne’s lively opening soliloquy was a pleasing induction to the main play. He reappeared as Pistol with vertical hair and fiery language, yet in a more nuanced performance than is often the case. Here, Pistol was imagined as unpredictable, sometimes tempestuous but with lapses of stillness, causing his companions to tiptoe around him and speak gently. Mistress Quickly was particularly strong in speaking in soothing tones while Doll roared.

The subplot of the rebels was unintrusive and largely forgettable, though Elliot Barnes-Worrell stood out as a smug and confident Prince John, with a wry turn of phrase and brutal pragmatism, outlining his righteousness with no small amount of pleasure. Simon Thorp also returned as the Lord Chief Justice, maintaining the through-line established in Part One and building to a final formal confrontation with Hal.

Here, I felt it was Alex Hassell who was the weak link in a largely strong production. His constant high level of energy and physical performance worked fantastically for the battle scenes of Part One, and Part Two is a play that serves the character less well, but here he seemed stranded in a relatively unnuanced role, with little self-awareness. A key example came in his confrontation with the Justice, in which Hal seemed genuinely prepared to turn on the Justice before responding with visible emotion and shame to the Justice’s reminder of being struck. Far from the pragmatist playing a long con, Hassell’s Hal seemed to be naive, tempestuous, genuinely open to having his worldview turned around in a quick moment (as opposed to allowing the Justice to stage his own forgiveness, as in other productions I have seen). While it was refreshing in some ways to see a Hal who wore his heart on his sleeve, it felt like there was no gameplan, with everything played for the immediate moment at the cost of an investment in the character.

This last felt clear to me in a throwaway approach to the final rejection. The procession itself was unspectacular, a simple march across the stage with no crowd beyond Falstaff and his cronies, and while Hal’s ‘I know you not’ was intimate, it happened quickly and undramatically: he turned around, fixed his face and told him, before leaving. While Sher sold the subsequent moments extremely well (standing stunned and dithering, his eyes and mouth betraying his loss even as he tried to brazen it out), the conclusion to the production was a disappointing anticlimax.

Nonetheless, Part Two showed an ensemble working hard with a difficult play, pulling some lovely moments of insight out of the sprawling text and establishing an overarching air of melancholy and fear of mortality, exploited to great effect. It’ll be fascinating to (hopefully) see some of this ensemble return for Henry V.

Posted in Theatre review