Henry IV Part II**** (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: December 11, 2014 in Theatre

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Having caught Gregory Doran’s production of Henry IV Part I in Stratford (see review posted on 29 August), I had long looked forward to discovering what he makes of Part II, now to be seen little more than a stone’s throw from the plays’ spiritual home – East Cheap. Hotspur, the manic super villain in the first play of these productions was left behind at Shrewsbury and the tone now changes from that of comic book action adventure to mellow reflections on the sorrow of ageing and the weight of power. This is the history play without a battle, a peace treaty achieved through duplicity having intervened to deny Shakespeare a much needed centrepiece to his drama and Doran does not completely overcome the problem during much of a first half that sometimes drags and stays afloat only because of the broad comedy supplied by Falstaff and his cohorts. However, The first half draws to a close with a wonderfully moving scene: A night of rollicking ends, Falstaff exits to bed clutching the devoted Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) and Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) falls asleep on stage; at this point, the ailing King (Jasper Britton), draped in white like a ghost, makes his first entrance and the essence of these plays, the extraordinary juxtaposition of low humour and epic drama, is grasped to the full – “How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep……Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Merging two scenes, Doran creates a magical moment and, thereafter, his production never loosens its grip. The always delightful Oliver Ford Davies joins the company to render a doleful Justice Shallow, a foil to Falstaff as the pair reminisce and hear the chimes of midnight together. I was still not bowled over by Alex Hassell’s Hal – a carefree prankster for sure, but an unlikely future King Henry V. However, a host of tremendous character performances are more than enough to compensate for a single weakness and Antony Sher’s Falstaff, now even funnier and sadder, remains a wonder to behold. Sher uses his own lack of height to brilliant comic effect, flailing his arms to threaten adversaries in gestures of obvious futility, yet, setting aside the comedy, he still reveals all the character’s insecurity and loneliness. The staging has lost very little in the transfer, Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple, uncluttered set, aided by Tim Mitchell’s lighting, converting readily from grandeur to intimacy. Overall, these are two memorable productions.

Performance date: 9 December 2014

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