This is the third in a series of four reviews of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, now playing at The Brooklyn Academy of Music and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Ohio State University. Click through for reviews of the other plays in the series: Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry V; and for a series overview, click here.
by JK Clarke
A common thread in the Henriad—William Shakespeare’s Cycle of Kings plays, as they are known—is that we the audience are witnessing a period of history. Several of the plays use a Chorus character to explain what we are seeing, to fill in the gaps, and to give a sweeping overview of this grand period in which we see the action surrounding the succession of kings from Richard to Henry IV to Henry V. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV, Part II, now playing at BAM, the character Rumor, the Presenter (cleverly played by Antony Byrne, who is tavern dweller Pistol later in this play and in Henry IV Part I) is one of us.
In a production that is otherwise presented in period costumes (beautifully constructed by Stephanie Arditti), Rumor begins the play, appearing in jeans and a Rolling Stones concert t-shirt. He then whips out a cell phone and takes a selfie with the audience. Rumor asks us to “open our ears” to his unfolding of “acts commenced on this ball of earth . . .” which turn out to be false stories of rebel victories that followed at the end of the last play. Hence, we know we are picking up that chronicle (now rife with contradictions and misleading rumor) after a sizeable gap in time, though it’s still the same story: young Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is emerging from his youthful, bawdy days with Sir John Falstaff (remarkable Antony Sher) and his rogues; and meanwhile the story continues of the rebellion against his father’s kingdom, which has in fact given way to a second wave, despite the king’s victories in the first.
This is primarily a play about the steps a young prince must take to shake off his wayward youth and become a man worthy of being a king. Prince Hal has to dismiss the father figure of his youthful folly (Falstaff) and reunite with his father of responsible adulthood (and regency), the now agèd King Henry IV (tough, strong Jasper Britton). The separation from Falstaff is like the breaking apart of any old gang: we’ve all had a period spent with a group of friends (whether at a bar, on a team, or in school) that has to come to an end, whether all members of that group want it or not—but Hal first enjoys a few more moments of mischief. Ultimately it’s Falstaff who’s left behind and can only die of a broken heart when he realizes (upon premature rumor of the king’s death and the reported ascension of Hal) the Prince no longer wants anything to do with him. The other wastrels of the Boars Head Inn in Eastcheap move on with their lives, some marrying, settling accounts, or winding up imprisoned, while others fade into alcoholic oblivion.
Henry IV, Part II is not known for the exciting action which define the other plays in this series. It is light on battles and heavy on relationships; but it is at times more purposeful and laden with meaning. It is also interspersed with delightful comic moments. While director Gregory Doran’s staging of some of the machinations of Pistol, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and the rest of the carousers falls short in terms of comic timing in this production, these deficits are more than made up for in the interactions between Falstaff and Justices Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies) and Silence (Jim Hooper) who play the two delightful doddering old coots to the hilt. Hooper, with his noteworthy, sculpted white beard and bald head (and who played an impressive Sir Richard Vernon in Henry IV, Part I), is terrifically funny as a deaf master of malaprop; the scenes between the two old gents completely steal the show and rescue the play in the second act.
While Henry IV, Part II is certainly not the best of the four plays of the Henriad from the outset, it’s important for resolving problems created by the previous plays (Richard II and Henry IV, Part I) and setting up the final play, Henry V. And this production is far more entertaining, beautifully designed and delightfully performed than one could hope. As with the other three, it falls squarely in the “don’t miss” camp.
Henry IV Part II (Third play of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings quadrilogy). Through May 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn). www.bam.org
Photos: Richard Termine