Henry IV, parts I and II @ Roundhouse, London

directed by
Michael Boyd and Richard Twyman
The RSC’s eight-play Shakespearean history cycle at the Roundhouse carries on strongly from the opening Richard II with a dynamic staging of Henry IV Parts I and II.

Part I begins with a simple but powerful image: the new king Henry IV bathing his face in water, desperately trying to cleanse himself of the guilt he feels for having deposed Richard. Having committed this sin against God’s earthly representative, he plans to atone with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but as the two plays show with compelling clarity his usurping actions will result in his reign being marred by conflict and rebellion.

Shakespeare alternates brilliantly between the high drama of the battle for power in England between Henry and his enemies, the Earl of Northumberland, his son Hotspur and their fellow rebels, and the low comedy of the scenes in the taverns of Eastcheap, where Henry’s reprobate son Hal is sowing his wild oats wining, wenching and playing pranks with the rotund old rascal Sir John Falstaff and his lawless cronies. As Henry struggles to keep control of his kingdom, it seems even his eldest son is rebelling against his authority, as national and family politics collide.

Director Michael Boyd (and Associate Director Richard Twyman) make full use of the auditorium, investing the low-life scrapes with as much frenetic energy as the bloody battles, as people swing across the stage on ropes, clamber up ladders and emerge unexpectedly from trapdoors in Tom Piper’s multi-level set. The action is fast and furious (offset by some quiet contemplative moments), as the audience around the open stage feel the pulse of living history throbbing all around them.

Part II (with Boyd and Twyman reversing their responsibilities) is a more fragmented affair, with far less dramatic tension than in Part I. Hal, having belatedly won his father’s approval by saving his life in battle and slaying his rival Hotspur, then relapses into his old wastrel ways with Falstaff, until he is called to fight again, while Henry’s mortal illness forces him to finally face up to his responsibilities as heir to the throne and renounce his former playboy lifestyle.

The (unscripted) silent appearance of Richard II’s ghost is a wonderful reminder of how the near civil war chaos in England is a pernicious consequence of his overthrow and murder, helping to giving a sense of overarching continuity to this cycle of plays. In contrast with the dynastic conflict, the comic scenes in Gloucestershire featuring the nostalgic reminiscences of the elderly Justices Shallow and Silence, and the recruitment to the army of sundry misfit locals, with part of the ‘ragamuffin’ audience being drilled, is highly entertaining.

The large cast perform splendidly throughout their six hours on stage. David Warner is the nicest, gentlest, most loveable Falstaff you will ever see. More overgrown naughty schoolboy than debauched schemer, his cowardice, drunkenness, lying and bragging seem like harmless fun, too innocent to seriously corrupt Hal’s moral character. However, there is a genuine warmth between them in this surrogate fatherson relationship, which makes Hal’s eventual banishment of him very poignant.

Geoffrey Streatfeild is a likeably vigorous Hal, marking well his rites of passage evolution from student-like high jinks to regal authority as he puts duty to his country before his personal feelings. He makes very clear that it is Hal’s thwarted desire for paternal affection as much as avoidance of responsibility which leads him to slum it with Falstaff.

Clive Wood makes a forceful impact as Henry, a man beset by both external and internal pressures, bullish yet vulnerable, only able to show his feelings towards his son when on his deathbed the first time the two actually touch. It’s a powerful portrayal of how ambitious ruthlessness is gradually undermined by the cares of state and a guilty conscience.

Lex Shrapnel is a charismatic Hotspur, hot-headed and spoiling for a fight, but full of courage and honour it’s a performance of such sustained high energy that after he is killed it feels like a gale-force wind has died down. Keith Bartlett also does well as his grief-stricken father Northumberland, rising from his sickbed with a thirst for revenge.

The Eastcheap posse are a riotous bunch, especially Julius D’Silva as the pock-marked Bardolph and Nicholas Asbury as the incendiary Pistol, with the splendidly coarse Maureen Beattie as Mistress Quickly more like a madam of a bawdy house than a mistress of a tavern. And in the more tranquil terrain of Gloucestershire Geoffrey Freshwater is extremely funny as the mirthfully long-winded Shallow, complemented by Sandy Neilson’s taciturnly pessimistic Silence.

The RSC continue their marvellous Wars of the Roses epic covering one hundred years of English history, brought to life with impressively dramatic immediacy – with Henry V.

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