Richard II/Henry IV pts 1 & 2 @ Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

cast list
Nicholas Asbury
Hannah Barrie
Keith Bartlett
Maureen Beattie
Antony Bunsee
Rob Carroll
Richard Cordery
Matt Costain
Julius D’Silva
Keith Dunphy
Wela Frasier
Geoffrey Freshwater
Paul Hamilton
Alexia Healy
Kieran Hill
Tom Hodgkins
Chuk Iwuji
Sianed Jones
John Mackay
Forbes Masson
Chris McGill
Patrice Naiambana
Luke Neal
Sandy Neilson
Ann Ogbomo
Miles Richardson
Lex Shrapnel
Anthony Shuster
Jonathan Slinger
Katy Stephens
Geoffrey Streatfeild
James Tucker
David Warner
Roger Watkins
Clive Wood

directed by
Michael Boyd
Richard Twyman
Following Richard III earlier in the year, Michael Boyd continues his complete history cycle by leaping back a century to the period that kicked off the whole bloody business. While we’ll eventually be able to see the “octology” chronologically, the RSC is producing them in the order that Shakespeare wrote them, allowing us to see his stylistic development over something like a 15 year period.

Everything that happens through to Richmond’s crowning as Henry VII at the end of the cycle stems from Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne in 1399. What Boyd’s brilliant production of Richard II shows is a truly degenerate king whose self-obsession and poor judgement make the onward march of history not only inevitable but necessary.

It is clear from the very beginning that Bolingbroke is a much worthier royal candidate. Rather than a contest between a strong and weak protagonist, we see one between a good and bad king and Bolingbroke’s ascension to the throne has never seemed so welcome.

At the centre of this production is a blistering portrayal of Richard by Jonathan Slinger. Stripped of the worst excesses of his Richard III performance, his Richard II emerges as a much more monstrous creation. Slinger minces and whines and explodes in hissy fits. With kingship torn from him, the trappings of campery fall away and he becomes a truly pathetic figure but one it’s difficult to have sympathy for. In contrast, Clive Wood’s Bolingbroke is a pillar of strength and integrity.

An inconsistency of the interpretation is the loyalty of Richard’s queen. Treated wretchedly by the king and his retinue of dandies, it comes as a surprise that she should call him her sweet rose and mourn his going. Similarly, the newly-crowned Henry IV’s remorse at Richard’s death is difficult to understand when what we see is a disease wiped from the land.

Minor points aside, this is an electrifying and totally engrossing performance. Dust literally thrown upon the royal head is just one stunning visual image from possibly the most insightful Richard II of the last 30 years.

The same level of inspiration isn’t sustained through the two parts of Henry IV. To present eight disparate plays as a unity is to impose a uniformity that doesn’t always hold and the same bare set with its rusty background looks barren through much of these plays (never a problem for Henry VI or Richard II). The same applies to the casting; Clive Wood, perfect for the younger Bolingbroke, is not so effective as the ageing ailing king.

What should be a highlight is the long-delayed return to the RSC of David Warner as Falstaff but, while he has a nice world-weary quality, the rascally sparkle is missing from the characterisation. There’s a lack of bulk to both his belly and what lies underneath. Geoffrey Streatfeild makes an attractive Hal with strong hints of the warrior king to come but Lex Shrapnel’s straggly-haired and ranting Hotspur lacks stature and nobility.

There are some nice repeating visual motifs, such as Bagot dragging Richard II’s coffin, which leapfrogs into the opening of Part II and these constant resonances are a strength of the complete cycle approach. What follows, though, is some tedious clowning and crowd-pleasing audience participation, making for a varied but inconsistent journey.

What we have with Henry IV (Part II is directed by Richard Twyman) is swift, clear storytelling which may not thrill but constantly engages even after 12 hours of this trinity of plays. Much more effective than the comedy scenes are the coup de theatre of John of Lancaster’s tricking of the rebels and the pathos of Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff, ending this slice of medieval history on a finely-tuned and open-ended note. The next 70 years beckon strongly.

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