In the wake of Harry Hotspur’s death in Part I, Gregory Doran’s blindingly good Henry IV Part II takes a bleak turn. After the highs of the war, the characters of one of Shakespeare’s finest histories are dragged down by the struggles of reality in the rowdy tavern of Eastcheap, the dark and atmospheric court, and further afield, as the men prepare themselves for a second uprising.
After a disconnected but very clever and modern hashtag-splattered monologue of Rumour, delivered by Antony Byrne in a Rolling Stones tee, we’re plunged back into the thoroughly Elizabethan world of Henry IV. An increasingly gout riddled Falstaff (Anthony Sher) is deep in debt to the feisty old Mistress Quickly, played by Paola Dionisotti who really comes into her own in Part II. Falstaff is also deeply and agonisingly in love with prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne). The pair have some absolutely heartbreaking powerful scenes, bitterly tinged by Falstaff’s increasing awareness of his own mortality.
Meanwhile, King Henry (Jasper Britton) is struggling with his responsibilities over at court, his head lying uneasy under the crown he took from Richard II and his shoulders weighed down by a heavy cloak – the fabric map of the British Isles that Glendower, the Douglas and Hotspur had so excitedly carved up between them in Part I.
The play is full of great speeches on old age but whenever a melancholy mood of retrospect and regret threatens to engulf the action, Falstaff and his friends can be counted upon to lighten proceedings. One moment we are musing over death, the next we are giggling at Falstaff’s scarecrow army or the illicit goings on at Mistress Quickly’s house. This time the fat funnyman is joined by Justices Silence and Shallow (Jim Hooper and Oliver Ford Davies respectively) who provide some brilliant light relief up in Gloucestershire and, down in London’s Eastcheap, by the raucous Pistol who Antony Byrne plays as a hilarious wild-eyed mix of Fagin and Captain Jack Sparrow.
Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is the same tour de force as he was in Part I. His delivery is perfect and he wrings out his part, already drenched as it is in comedy, for every last drip of laughter. The journeys the characters started in the first Part reach their conclusions in Part II,culminating in rewarding final scenes that make such a viewing marathon worthwhile. The character development is again striking, from Falstaff’s physical degeneration to Prince Hal’s maturing into King Henry V. Jasper Britton and Alex Hassell’s performance of Henry IV’s deathbed scene is masterful, as is the coronation scene. This is how Shakespeare should be done.