Henry IV Parts I and II, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, 17 July 2007-14 March 2008.

Bill Gelber
Texas Tech University

Bill Gelber. "Review of Henry IV Parts I and II, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 21.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revsqm.htm>.

    Directed by Michael Boyd, Associate Director Richard Twyman, Set Design by Tom Piper, Costume Designs by Emma Williams, Lighting by Heather Carson, Music composed by James Jones and John Woolf, Movement by Liz Ranken, Sound by Andrea J. Cox, Fights by Terry King.
    With Forbes Masson (Rumour); Clive Wood (Henry IV); Geoffrey Streatfeild (Hal); David Warner (Falstaff); Chris McGill (Prince John of Lancaster); Miles Richardson (Sir Walter Blunt and Lord Sackville); Rob Carroll (Lord Ross, Chamberlain, Fang, and Thomas Wart); Tom Hodgkins (Earl of Westmoreland); Kieran Hill (Poins); Patrice Naiambana (Earl of Warrick); Geoffrey Freshwater (Vitner, Carrier, and Justice Shallow); Roger Watkins (Owen Glendower and Carrier); James Tucker (Lord Hastings); Anthony Shuster (Tom, Duke of Clarence, Ralph and Simon Shadow); Julius D'Silva (Bardolph); Keith Dunphy (Edmond Mortimer and Lord Mowbray); Nicholas Asbury (Pistol); Maureen Beattie (Mistress Quickly); Wela Frasier (Peto); Sandy Neilson (Justice Silence); Jonathan Slinger (Ghost of Richard II); Paul Hamilton (Earl of Douglas, Sheriff, Gower, Travers, Ralph Mouldy); Lex Shrapnel (Hotspur); Katy Stephens (Lady Northumberland and Francis Feeble); John Mackay (Earl of Worcester); Antony Bunsee (Archbishop of York); Alexia Healy (Doll Tearsheet and Ostler); Hannah Barrie (Drawer); Chuk Iwuji (Sir John Coleville); Matt Costain (Cutter, Snare, Davey); Richard Cordery (Lord Chief Justice); Keith Bartlett (Earl of Northumberland); Sianed Jones (Lady Mortimer and Musician); Luke Neal (Sir Richard Vernon, Duke of Gloucester, Servant, Peter Bullcalf); and Ann Ogbomo (Lady Percy).
  1. Together the two parts of Henry IV are one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. The story of Hal and Falstaff's relationship, and the latter's fall, as well as the deaths of Henry IV and Hotspur, have that combination of comedy and tragedy which is the mark of the best in drama. David Warner, returning to the RSC's histories forty years after his famous Henry VI in The Wars of the Roses of the 1960s, is a subtle but sly and heart-breaking Falstaff, and the rapport he has with Geoffrey Streatfeild's Hal is that good-natured competition which true friendship is all about. This is a delicate Falstaff, almost dancelike in his movements of arm or leg, whose weight only gives him trouble when rising or falling. Their first entrance has Hal pushing Falstaff's bed onto the stage from the inner below, and waking the fat knight by pouring sack over his head. (This business will later be repeated in Part Two, when Poins pours wine over Hal before the latter begins to suspect their friendship.) The set pieces of the Gadshill robbery and the play between Hal and Falstaff as they take turns as Henry IV are wonderfully performed, but more understated than usual, so that it is easier for Hal to slip in his future prediction ("I do, I will", II.iv.481) without yet worrying his companions. And so the Cheapside adventures continue, with Falstaff's wit and charm the magnetism that out-weigh's Hal's ultimate calling at court.

  2. Clive Wood is a commanding Henry IV, stout of stature and robust of spirit, the kind of man who would easily lament that his son wasn't exchanged for Northumberland's at birth. This bold figure contrasts easily with the dying Henry of Part Two. The position of the ultimate knight is, of course, held by Lord Percy, called Hotspur (Lex Shrapnel), whose version of "speaking thick" is not a heavy accent, but is his inability to let anyone else have the last word, so passionate is he about his own position. This Hotspur is fairly bursting with outrage at the insults his family has endured.

  3. Taking advantage of the thrust stage and the intimacy of the space, the director has the actors address the audience throughout, most effectively when the audience members in the stalls on the stage left side are asked to stand to be reviewed by Falstaff for his army. Much levity is created as the characters insult this group, as when Hal says of them "I did never see such pitiful rascals" (IV.ii.64).

  4. Sianed Jones, as Mortimer's wife, provides a beautiful Welsh song the night before the battle, and Ann Ogombo is an excellent Lady Percy, who matches her husband's passion, in this case for him rather than for his battles and horses. We will remember all too well her loss in Part Two when she convincingly persuades Northumberland to stay at home ("O yet for God's sake, go not to these wars!", II.iii.9), thus helping to seal the rebels' downfall. Hotspur's death is a savage one, with Hal requiring a sword in each hand to defeat him. As a soldier, Falstaff looks most ridiculous wearing a red headband under his "helmet" to match his red doublet. However, he handles his sword as one to the manner born, showing that he might at one point have earned the knighthood he has disgraced. This Falstaff does not pick up the dead Hotspur, but the way that he suddenly places his foot on Hotspur's dead body when Hal enters almost stops the show, so brazenly does he try to take sudden credit for the latter's death. The play ends suddenly as it should being but the first half, with Henry IV's speech on the battlefield leading to a quick blackout.

  5. The beginning of Part Two, after Hal's triumph at Shrewsbury, begins to turn dark. Lest we forget how Henry IV has arrived at his position, and how it has affected his sleep, the figure of Rumour enters with the bloody ghost of Richard II (Jonathan Slinger), who haunts Henry until his death. Rumour himself (the wonderful Forbes Masson, who later plays the Chorus in Henry V) himself is as pale as one sick, and he bitterly intones the lines about Hotspur's triumph, which is, of course, false. This sickness can even been seen among the Cheapside whores, as Doll Tearsheet vomits on her entrance in Act II, and looks as pale as a plague victim throughout the rest of the play. (Quickly: "What's this? How do you now?" Doll: "Better than I was. Hem.", II. Iv.28-30) Perhaps Falstaff's acquaintance with this Doll is the reason that his "water" is not deemed pure by the doctor.

  6. One of the dramatic devices of the histories seems to be the idea of time as an hour glass, as white sand literally falls from the flies on those figures whose time has run out. This happens to Henry IV as he stands center stage, before his final two scenes and his death in "Jerusalem."

  7. Flying is used in these plays as in Henry V, for example when a bridge is lowered from above with Prince John and his confederates as he looks down on the Archbishop he is about to double-cross. The wall upstage of the thrust contains a huge cylindrical tower which can be climbed upon, used as a balcony and at the bottom of which are two huge doors used as the inner below. Above the tower is a live orchestra which plays throughout the performances of the history, in particular with percussion for the martial themes of the plays. When Hal becomes King Henry V, he descends from a circular staircase along this tower.

  8. One of the most amusing characters is Freshwater's Shallow, a hilariously effete justice, who seems to enjoy all the good things in life, and naughtily reminds Sir John of school days that perhaps are not as manly as he would like to remember. (Shallow:"O Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the Windmill in Saint George's Field?" Falstaff: "No more of that, Master Shallow, no more of that!" III.ii.194-6.) The parading of the recruits is extremely funny, with Simon Shadow fainting throughout the scene from sickness and Mouldy living up to his name by having a very green face, and being treated by the others as if he is as smelly as bad cheese.

  9. When Falstaff is rejected, it is Shallow's bonhomie that most jangles. The latter seems to totally miss the shame of the moment as he petulantly insists on being repaid by the fallen knight. This is one of Warner's best moments, as his acceptance of his fate seems almost wistful, rather than painful. Even he knows however, at "I will be sent for in private," (V. v.77) that he is kidding himself. He avoids the tears that marked Anthony Quayle's Falstaff, but his guts have been kicked in nonetheless. If his fate is not sad enough, a cage is suddenly lowered around him and his Cheapside companions, and their former mate, the new king, stares at them through the bars. There is a sudden blackout and the epic double play ends with that haunting image left in our minds.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).