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Following the triumphant staging by Michael Boyd of the First Tetralogy – Henry VI Part I, II and III andRichard III – in 2006, the company returns to the Courtyard stage for the first three plays of the Second Tetralogy, Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry IV Parts I and II. For those uninitiated in Shakespearean terminology, a ‘tetralogy’ is a series of four related dramatic compositions; although as anyone can see, King Henry IV reigned long before King Henry VI, they are accorded their first and second status because of the order Shakespeare wrote them. What is missing? Henry V of course, a play we are promised later in the season.
For now, the RSC audience is treated to the three plays which introduce Henry Bolingbroke, later crowned King Henry IV, and the accession to the throne of his son and future military hero, Prince Hal, later Henry V. In Richard II, the effeminate and ineffectual King Richard suffers rebellion and civil unrest and the rise of a charismatic leader who has the ‘common touch’. Henry Bolingbroke, grandson of Edward III by his fourth son John of Gaunt deposes his cousin Richard II who is also the grandson of Edward III by his first son, Edward, the Black Prince. This comparatively ‘peaceful’ transition would have sat easily on the new king Henry’s conscience had not his cousin met an untimely death whilst imprisoned. From then on, both Henry IV and his son, Henry V, felt the weight of usurpation and doubt on their kingly shoulders.
In the two plays which concern Henry IV’s troubled reign, we are introduced to Prince Hal’s wayward companions, led by the drunken reprobate Sir John Falstaff. Henry has to battle with Hotspur, Harry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland who unites with the Welsh to overthrow his king. Having defeated this enemy, Henry must also confront supporters of the Archbishop of York, Richard Scroop, who continues the rebellion and saps the strength of the ageing king. Eventually, after several bloody battles and ribald humour, Prince Hal is pronounced king on his father’s death, whilst renouncing his wild and unruly ways and his wild and unruly drinking companions.
Performed for its opening ‘night’ audience over a single day, beginning at 10.30 in the morning and going on to after 10.30 at night, this tour de force for any acting company provides a unique opportunity to see the development of characters and themes which, when enjoyed in isolation, loses some of its magic and dynamism. Boyd’s ‘Histories’ company yet again does justice to these amazing plays and I personally cannot wait until the company’s promised enactment of their two Tetralogies at the Roundhouse in London. Watch this space.
The First play, Richard II, provides the perfect vehicle for that star of the ‘Histories’ season, Jonathan Slinger. Resplendent in white gown, whitened face and outrageous ginger wig, Slinger personifies the Cult of Elizabeth, not surprising since the queen was herself recorded as saying that her subjects saw her as the Shakespearean character: ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that?’. As a queen who professed to have the ‘body of a weak and feeble woman, but … the heart and stomach of a king’, the iconography of Slinger’s androgynous representation of kingship is perfectly suited to this ‘Elizabethan’ production. Tom Piper’s lavish costumes and design are wonderful features of these plays, the intricate simplicity of the sixteenth-century costumes justifying the artistic choice to retain a glorious ‘conservatism’ for plays which were as much political statement as anachronistic historical re-enactments for their time.
Slinger’s androgyny also seems perfectly justified when favourite after favourite is rewarded by his affection and care. His parting from his wife, Queen Isabel (Hannah Barrie) is doubly moving as these partners in life if not necessarily in marital love, embrace with an intensity which doomed farewells inevitably engender. By now, Slinger’s Richard has removed his white makeup, his periwig and the trappings of state, and now stands in a shroud-like robe as the metaphorical sands of time fall relentlessly on his shaven head. The imagery is haunting, reminiscent of Japanese Noh theatre, and repeated later to announce the death knell of subsequent kings as they face their final reckoning.
Each member of the company adds an intensity and honesty of performance, and it is hard to single specific actors for praise. John of Gaunt (Roger Watkins) evokes a bitter old man bemoaning the fate of his nation, whilst Richard Cordery and Maureen Beattie as the Duke and Duchess of York, add to the humorous reality of the unfolding horror. As for Henry Bolingbroke himself, Clive Wood has made the role his own. Wood’s performance, continuing as it does through all three plays, is remarkable in its integrity and strength. Wood and Slinger soar in Richard II.
It is surprising, then, to see how different Henry IV Part I is from its sister play, Henry IV Part II. Henry IV Part I, as I have said, introduces Falstaff and the motley crew, Ned Poins, Bardolph, Peto and Mistress Quickly, who all appear to corrupt the Prince of Wales, Prince Hal, at the Tavern in Eastcheap. David Warner engages well with Falstaff, although this is so obviously a ‘padded’ actor that at times it is impossible to imagine the lard swilling in his belly as anything other than sham. It is not until Henry IV Part II, which explores the spiralling fortunes of the reprobate knight, that Warner is able to bring pathos and care to the bombast. We cannot help but care about the lumbering old fellow, but there is a sense that this care comes from the writing as much as the playing.
More successful is Maureen Beattie as Mistress Quickly, whose sexuality and bawdiness are eminently watchable. Beattie conjures a woman whose skills in the art of love are only matched by her pragmatic acceptance that younger, fresher blood might be lusted over. Quickly easily adapts to her new role, providing Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet, played with remarkable verve and clarity by Alexia Healy. Add to this Julius D’Silva’s Bardolph and, in Part II, a wonderful Pistol in Nicholas Asbury, and you have the makings of great humour.
That is, however, the key, and one which, unless you see all three plays performed by the same group of actors (as you could have done in Shakespeare’s time), is normally lost in the hallowed and isolated performances of Shakespeare in the twenty-first century. The three plays are so different. Richard II is an incredibly gripping political thriller with startling twists in plot and an unfolding drama that cannot fail to enthral and entertain. Henry IV Part I appears so lightweight in comparison, a series of pantomimic events interspersed with the thunder of war. There is a lack of substance. Henry IV Part II, however, redresses the balance, combining its broad humour with more skill and, for the audience, more interest. In Henry IV Part II (wait for the slings and arrows of outraged Shakespeare lovers), Shakespeare appears to have got it right (ouch, they really hurt!).
Whatever my opinion of the individual plays, there is little doubt that Boyd has, again, done service to the RSC and to the Shakespeare ‘Histories’. Whichever play you get to see, and I can so recommend all three for different reasons, you will be watching the best that the country has to offer. When it comes to London, watch out for a rush to buy tickets. History was never, ever, so much fun.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
Originally published on R&V 18-08-07
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