In Henry IV part one we have seen the excitement and tension of a rush towards civil war, in which a feckless prince faces up to his duty and proves himself to be a hero. It has a strong, single narrative drive and it races along, laced with a good deal of humour, towards a thrilling single combat between two bitter rivals, Hal and Hotspur. Henry IV part two is a much darker, more sombre play in which we see the consequences of that war, broken families, heartbreak, disillusionment and a country in crisis. There is humour still, but it is melancholy and wistful. It contains some of the best scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote and sets the political against the nakedly personal in a way that allows them to shed light on each other. Ideally the two should be seen together and usually they are.
After enjoying his performance in part one I was looking forward to seeing Jasper Britton play one of my favourite scenes in all Shakespeare, Henry IV’s blistering attack on Hal, and he didn’t let me down. It was a heartfelt, visceral performance. I just wish that he had been given a Hal with a bit more fire to play against. It is both a key moment for the nation and a portrait of every father and son who were ever disappointed in each other and it takes two.
Antony Sher and Paola Dionisotti make the most of their opportunities to develop their characters in part two. Sher is a fine Falstaff who plays the cynicism of the character particularly well. Paola Dionisotti is a great Mistress Quickly, funny and poignant, and she makes the most of the greater opportunities for the character that she is given later in the plays.
Antony Byrne put in the necessary barnstorming comic performance as Pistol but I wasn’t convinced that he was also dangerous and I think that you need to be.
In the Gloucestershire scenes Shakespeare is on home ground, writing about a setting that he knows well. There is a lot of pathos and some broad comedy for the actors to relish and they are beautifully done in this production. Oliver Ford-Davies is both funny and touching as Justice Shallow, bringing all his experience to bear, and together with Jim Hooper’s marvelous Justice Silence, he provides an object lesson in perfect theatrical timing and truthfulness. Just the kind of acting I relish.
A lovely production with a lot to enjoy. There were a few weaknesses too, for me, but the strengths more than made up for them and I am left looking forward to the next time.