Henry IV Part Two. RSC. live relay from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Jim Hooper, Antony Sher and Oliver Ford-Davies as Justice Silence, Falstaff and Justice Shallow. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

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.

Richard II. Live relay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford Upon Avon. 13-11-13

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

Richard II is a play that I am very fond of. Richard became king at the age of ten and the play provides a moving look at what this may do to a person who is forced to grow up only seeing himself through the warped perspective of a world where he is treated as a divinely ordained, all powerful king, while at the same time being forced to rely on others in order to fulfil that role. Richard discovers himself to be a flawed and vulnerable human being too late as the relentless real politik of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke destroys him and the prop of kingship- his only reality- is taken away. He is capricious, needy, childlike, arrogant, artistic, impulsive, petulant, a sensitive and thoughtful man at heart who would have been better suited to a life in the Arts than kingship. He is an easy target for both hangers on who want to take advantage of him and achieve favour and those enemies who are ruthless enough to take him down. This is a story of regime change and the toll it takes on those involved- above all the king himself- and it is told in some of the most beautiful poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a play that can break your heart.

You never hear the part of Richard being talked about as a “mountain” in the way that Hamlet or Lear are but looking back at that list of words I have picked out to describe aspects of his character it probably should be. I have seen some great Richards over the years. David Tennant has some natural advantages for the role. He has the physical presence, a natural elegance and beauty, that any actor playing Richard needs. He has a facility to speak the verse well and a quicksilver mind which makes the speeches easy to understand. Watching him we certainly believe in the less admirable aspects of Richard’s character. He is very good at the public Richard, imperious and spoiled to a fault and particularly good in the deposition scene. This is Richard’s parting shot at Bolingbroke, he is toying with him, making sure that he goes down under protest with all flags flying. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great scenes and he does it proud. What he didn’t quite reach, for me, was the sensitivity and poetry at the heart of Richard, an otherworldly quality which touches the heart. This is a very difficult balance to strike in order to turn the audience’s sympathies around. We should feel as ambivalent as Bolingbroke himself about Richard’s downfall. While we can see that a king who is utterly unsuitable to rule needs to go we also need to feel desperately sorry for him as a man, flawed like all of us, learning what he needs to know too late to allow him to become a wiser, humbler Richard.

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Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade

Bolingbroke is played with uncompromising toughness by Nigel Lindsay. This is a real bruiser of a man and there is no doubt what he is after. It is only after he is sure of getting it that the doubts which will follow him for the rest of his life begin to grow. This is nicely suggested by the figure of Richard looking down on him once again at the end of the play. just one among many fine directorial touches from Greg Doran.

The real joy of this production for me were three great performances from three experienced Shakespearian actors, Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. You could wait a lifetime to see those three parts played better. The grief and anger of the duchess was visible, real and searing and watching John of Gaunt tear into Richard after giving us the most beautifully spoken and heartfelt manifesto of his reasons for doing it in the this England speech was a very fine sight indeed. I would buy myself another ticket simply to see that again. I also liked Oliver Rix as Aumerle, York’s son. He is a confused young man, blinded by his love for Richard and the performance was very well thought through and strongly played.

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Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt.
Production photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

This is a very beautiful production to look at, made with enormous attention to detail from traditional old style theatrical magic, gobbos and gels given a new dimension by modern technology. The design by Steven Brimson-Lewis and lighting by Tim Mitchell gives us a shimmering cathedral made from light and curtains of beads, backlit undergrowth under a red moon, a cold blue shadowy prison and a moving platform right across the stage, a great asset for any production of this play, showing off Richard in his pomp giving great flexibility to the cast and director and moving the play along with great speed as a scene is transformed in an instant. It is the kind of setting that Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse deserves.

I would like to end by saying one or two things specific to the live relay. I am getting quite used to them now but this was the first I have seen that almost gave me the sense that I was sitting in the audience at the stunning new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was beautifully produced, pointing us towards key moments and reactions, as well as giving us a sense of the larger picture. I do wish though that the producer of it had remembered that the audience are not necessarily Shakespearean novices who need to be told what the opening scene contains as the lights go down. These live relays sell out weeks in advance and most of us are only there because money and/or time does not allow us to be there in the audience, sitting in the theatre as we would really like to be. Please don’t patronise us. I also wasn’t comfortable seeing two of the actors, Jane Lapotaire and Michael Pennington, interviewed live during the interval. They were charming, insightful and in Jane Lapotaire’s case very moving but it just wasn’t appropriate- even though their parts were over for the evening.

Hamlet. BBC/RSC/illuminations. 2009.

I never got to see David Tennant’s Hamlet on stage so I was very pleased to see it on film. It is beautifully shot, mostly in a sumptuous ballroom location, with some lovely camera work, using close ups, asides to camera, and a cracked mirror to great visual effect. There is no weak link in the cast, although I was a little disappointed by Mariah Gale as Ophelia. She looks beautiful but sometimes lacks conviction, and her mad scene is rather too beautiful for my taste. The gravedigger could have found more depth in his part too. Penny Downie and Patrick Stewart, both hugely experienced classical actors, are excellent as Gertrude and Claudius and work extremely well together using body language and eye contact to suggest the details of a relationship which are not always laid out in the text. Oliver Ford-Davies makes a very good Polonius, an aging man who is fighting against the fact that he is beginning to be seen as an old dodderer by his children and some of those at court but still has the capacity to be dangerous. My favourite performance was that of Edward Bennett as Laertes, heartfelt and believable, a loyal brother and dutiful son who is never in any danger of thinking too precisely on the event.

As Hamlet himself David Tennant starts off very well. He has an intensity as an actor which works well for him in the early part of the play and he is believable as a grieving son who has been pushed over the edge by the loss of his father and the behaviour of Gertrude and Claudius. The early soliloquies are very well handled and are beautifully shot in close up. He reins himself in and we are drawn into his grief and confusion. Later on, as he feigns madness and begins to toy with the people around him I found him rather too manic and lost that intense identification with him that I felt at the start- for me it became a performance full of sound and fury which didn’t signify nearly enough. We need to see Hamlet as we see him at the beginning from time to time as a foil to his game playing and I didn’t feel that we quite did. Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I started beautifully as Hamlet destroyed the security camera which had shown us some of the action and flung himself down on the floor to think, but it ended in a rush of activity and gesture which I could have done without. There are some beautiful directorial touches which are carefully preserved in the film and I admire Greg Doran’s work very much but I would have been tempted to rein his star in a bit and let the fierce intensity which David Tennant can project do the job. Shouting and running around pulling faces is no substitute for his natural presence as an actor. It may well have worked better on a large stage where there was plenty of empty space for him to fill. A very good Hamlet then, but not a great one.

Having said all that any production of Hamlet is always something of a curates egg in that however it is approached there will always be gains and losses. The Player King and his troupe suffered a little from the way that they had to slot into the whole style of the production and John Woodvine- a very talented and experienced Shakespearian- was not able to run at his part with relish as he might have done in a different production. For me this production had a lot to enjoy but didn’t quite hit the mark. I always come away from Hamlet feeling that- it’s one of the reasons why it is worth going back to it- so that doesn’t take away the fact that I enjoyed it very much and I am very glad that it has been recorded so skilfully on film.