Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran
Greg Doran’s Henry IV Part 2 is a world class interpretation of a play that is at once a historical comment upon England, a bittersweet study on the frailities of age and a beautiful exposition of the human condition. Picking up from Part 1 with Hotspur’s death at Shrewsbury, the play dwells upon the waning of Henry IV’s reign, the revolutions that are continually afoot and the (now separate) paths of young Hal and Falstaff.
In the only obvious nod to the modern era, Doran opens the play with Antony Byrne's Rumour, in jeans, imploring us to open our ears. It is the only overtly stylistic nod to modern times, though such is the wit of Shakespeare's verse that many dramatic creations of our times clearly draw their inspiration from the Bard.
King Henry’s appearances in Part 2 are less frequent, he is an old man now, but Jasper Britton’s interpretation of the King is all the sweeter for being so much more condensed. His “uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown” speech being a beautifully focussed insight into the burdens of statesmanship. Britton is amongst excellent company on stage. Alex Hassell’s Hal is every inch the King to be, well weighted in addressing his father’s demise and steeled with the cold aloofness of absolute power as heartbreakingly he ultimately scorns Falstaff, his former friend.
It is in his depiction of England and its natives though that Shakespeare gives us an endearing social comment. The elderly Justices Shallow and Silent, exquisitely defined by Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, seeing out their days in idyllic Gloucestershire, could so easily be the inspiration for television's Last Of The Summer Wine with just a hint of old Mr Grace thrown in for good measure. Ever considered what classical sources may have led to the creation of Albert Square's Angie Watts and Dot Cotton? Well get yourself to Stratford where Paola Dionisotti's marvellous Mistress Quickly presides over her brothel/tavern in a style that as much suggests EastEnders as Eastcheap.
And presiding over this carnival of characters is Antony Sher's Falstaff. The glory of his Part 1 excellence is only polished in this sequel. Sher extracts painful pathos as he acknowledges he is too old to sate the flame of his desire that burns for Nia Gwynne’s young whore Doll Tearsheet. He frequently owns the stage with his oratory, the soliloquy in praise of sherry being one of the evening's many delights. At the play's close Falstaff, full of bombast, is snubbed by the King in front of his old friends the Justices to whom he had promised access to the Court. The pain of this humiliation, so brilliantly penned by Shakespeare, in Sher’s hands is tragi-comedy defined. As he attempts to shrug off his own shrugging off by the King, one can sense more than a hint of Del Boy telling Rodney not to worry, "next year, we'll be millionaires". The relevance of the prose is timeless
Again the RSC surpass themselves. Dominic Dromgoole recently commented that some countries "do Shakespeare" better than us and occasionally he may be right. But this production cannot be bettered. The stagecraft on display, from both cast and creatives is perfection. Rarely is a classic work performed with such wit, freshness and vitality.
Runs until 6th September 2014, then tours.