There were many moments in last night’s performance of Henry IV, part II that will stick with me for a very long time: but two of them are worth highlighting because of the sheer quality (and invisibility) of the acting that seared them into my thoughts and emotions. Firstly: Sean Chapman’s desperate lament, as the Earl of Northumberland, for his son, Hotspur, near the beginning of the play; and his tangible guilt at not accompanying him to the battle of Shrewsbury. This was raw, and utterly believable, and brought tears to my eyes. As good and strong as Michael Pennington’s “old man’s rant”, as John of Gaunt.
Secondly, Oliver Ford Davies’ first appearance as Justice Shallow. As he proved in Richard II, his apparently natural – but deeply thoughtful and intelligent – approach to stagecraft wipes everything else from your mind: bringing him into rapid, but lingering focus. Feelings flit across his face; a variance in tone heightens the impact of a word; a throwaway gesture pulls the audience with him – rendering all those around him suddenly a tad less effective; until he generously encompasses them in his talent, letting them, too, shine with him – and then in front of him. His timing is perfection.
And it is timing – or pace; or even rhythm – that I believe lies at the heart of the problems I have with both of these plays; and, specifically, these performances. Although the switch from comic scene to historic meshes more evenly in part II – as the humour finally begins to drain from Falstaff’s girth, towards his sad conclusion – it is difficult to sense any overarching glue holding these two contrasting approaches together; and sometimes, I feel, there could have been just a little bit more breathing space: as with the pauses between movements in a symphony.
Falstaff is now almost completely divorced from Hal – until the final crushing blow (so perfectly represented in Elgar’s symphonic study…) – and yet such a feeling of loss (echoed in Northumberland’s mourning; the king’s increasing closeness to death; the swift defeat of the second rebellion), which could bind everything together, is, ironically, missing. We are not given the chance to stop, and take those losses to heart.
There aren’t enough meaningful relationships, either. Poins is only at Hal’s side when needed for an additional dash of humour; although Bardolph’s loyalty to Falstaff cannot be questioned – whatever its origin. Everyone seems lonely; alliances are all-too easily questioned and broken – all of which contributes to the episodic feel. It feels a little like modern government.
Without giving too much away, the chorus, Rumour’s appearance on stage, in the Prologue, even before the house lights go down – and then merging deftly into the first scene – is a stroke of rare genius; and a great reminder never to leave your mobile phone switched on in the theatre!
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west
(Making the wind my post-horse), still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth.
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world;
And who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepar’d defence,
Whiles the big year, swoll’n with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wav’ring multitude,
Can play upon it. But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household? Why is Rumour here?
Overall, I felt part II worked better than part I – although it was disappointing to see the theatre less than half full… – and the play built well upon those foundations. The increased concentration on the titular rôle also enabled Jasper Britton to shine: his decline was, as the play drew on, extremely poignant. Special mention must also go to young Jonathan Williams, in his debut professional appearance, as Falstaff’s page. A star in the making – with great energy and confidence; a wicked grin; and a wonderful clarity of delivery. At the end, he is all that is left on the stage – spotlit briefly, until the world he and his master inhabit fades away.