Henry IV Part Two


The Barbican (RSC production)


In a fit of – I don’t know exactly what but it certainly wasn’t sanity – I bought tickets to see The King and Country tetralogy (also known as the Hollow Crown) over three days at the Barbican. This is the third of the four – the first is Richard II and the second is Henry IV Part One.

This play started with a fabulous modern (and fourth-wall breaking) monologue which elided the mobile phone announcement into Rumour’s opening speech – in a Rolling Stones t-shirt which is a great nod to the “painted full of tongues” stage direction. It’s been interesting to watch the staging develop through the sequence of plays – although I do wonder how sick the designers got of the set by the end!

It’s great to see as well how the ensemble and direction has developed too – there were some great callbacks here to earlier moments, especially Jasper Britton’s Henry IV doing a pitch-perfect imitation of David Tennant’s speech:

When Richard, with his eye brim full of tears,

Then check’d and rated by Northumberland,

Did speak these words, now prov’d a prophecy?

‘Northumberland, thou ladder by the which

My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne’

There was also a wonderful scene with Pistol and Falstaff playing with a mock crown of a bowl which they end up using in a tug of war – bringing back Richard urging Bolingbroke to seize the crown. It’s true what they say – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

On the other hand, it’s a shame that this play also feels like a reset button has been pressed. It is frustrating to see Hal back to being a rapscallion, and another Percy threatening rebellion. The plays were written quite close together (Henry IV part one no later than 1597, Henry IV part two before 1599) – I wonder whether Shakespeare needed a good editor, or was cashing in on early success.

The main reason the reset button annoyed me, I’ll admit, was that Alex Hassel’s Hal was one of the best things in Part One, and it is frustrating to see so little of him, especially when his character and position has got interesting. He could be more frustrated at his wastrel role, potentially trying to take on greater glory after his success against Hotspur, and striving harder with his father*. Instead we get a post-tennis match chat about hypocrisy:

Prince. What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?

Poins. I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.

Prince. It would be every man’s thought; and thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks.

And then he largely disappears for Two. Whole. Acts. Why??????

On the other hand, we get more of Henry IV. This is where Jasper Britton has royally come into his own as the uneasy head seeking absolution and finding only care. It almost impossible to believe that only two days ago we saw him in his prime as the crowning glory of the age, so bowed and broken is he – and I wouldn’t now change the casting for worlds.

We had more fight scenes – although they fitted better in the play. No less stagey, but Bardolph taking on two constables with their own quarterstaffs and knocking their head together had a pleasingly cartoonish feel to it which fitted the scene. The rest of the comedy – Falstaff mustering men for the war – would have had a much deeper resonance for the Elizabethan audience used to musters for Ireland, but falls rather flatter and less comic to modern ears – it makes Falstaff seem more villain than rogue and makes Hal’s rejection of the old man more, rather than less justifiable.

On the other hand, the mustering scenes had more depth than you might think. Mr Justice Shallow came across as a real man rather than just a silly caricature, thanks to Oliver Ford Davies who was so fabulous as the Duke of York in Richard II. And Falstaff had his moment too – particularly with Doll Tearsheet on his knee:

Falstaff. I am old, I am old.

Doll. I love thee better than I love e’er a scurvy young boy of them all.

Falstaff. What stuff wilt have a kirtle of? I shall receive money a Thursday. Shalt have a cap to-morrow. A merry song, come. ‘A grows late; we’ll to bed. Thou’t forget me when I am gone.

In terms of the overall plot – I can’t help wondering what Shakespeare had against the Percys – after Hotspur died in the last play, in part because his father refused to offer his support, the old man disgraces himself by fleeing to Scotland. Maybe he was just writing to his audience – Percys were involved in the Rising of the North and the Gunpowder Plot, so they can’t have been popular with any monarch of the time.

The end – with Hal at last in a robe for his coronation, and when exactly was seeing a man in a robe such an ambition of mine? – is clearly set up for the sequel, both by characters in the play, and the epilogue, and in Henry V we find out what happens to most of these characters. Which leads to the one loose end I see – what happens to Poins?


* I think there’s an interesting interpretation to be made of a son who loves his father so much, and fears disappointing him, that he cannot bring himself to even try and live up to his expectations and finds it easier – and yet also so much harder – just to disappoint him.

3 thoughts on “Henry IV Part Two

  1. That’s a lot of Shakespeare in three days! Did you have to take one of those beaded seat covers, to stop your backside going numb? Must be quite an experience. Interesting, to hear about the less lauded plays too.


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