As we approach the mid-point in the Globe’s calendar for the Kings and Rogues season, Henry IV Part 2 is the latest play to open on Bankside, booking right through until October. Following directly on from the events of Henry IV Part 1, it follows the same characters as the increasingly frail King worries about whether his son Prince Hal is ready to assume the kingship, having fallen back into his wayward ways, Falstaff and his motley crew continue to live life to the full but the shadow of their mortality loom long on the horizon and though rebellion has been quashed, there are still murmurings of discontent.
This is indeed a more reflective play and nowhere is this better personified than in Jamie Parker’s Hal. He looks and sounds older, more mature, having grown into the role of a statesman able to forgive those that crossed him in the past and become the son his father has long sought after by outgrowing the feckless compatriots of his younger days as shown in the crushing final scene.
There’s a considerable amount of doubling up from the ensemble, both from characters carried over from Part 1 and within this play itself too, and it is all very smoothly done. The best example of this is probably Barbara Marten’s bawdy Mistress Quickly, switching into the grief-stricken Lady Northumberland in magnificent mourning dress and then back again in very quick succession. Marten is superb as both women and it is a shame that the plays do not call for more of her considerable talents. Sam Crane clearly relishes the opportunity to break loose with a virile, buccaneering Pistol and there’s also good work from young Oliver Coopersmith as Falstaff’s new young page, Paul Rider also makes the most of the increased role of Bardolph, getting laughs from almost every grunt and gesture.
But once again it is William Gaunt who emerges as one of the best things in the production: his Robert Shallow is deliciously fey and paired with Christopher Goodwin’s Silence, they are scandalously entertaining. The scenes where they recollect their shared past with Falstaff and ruminate on the frailty of human existence are just beautiful and perfectly spoken.
The play really comes alive during the ensemble comedic scenes, the sword fights in the tavern, perusing the wares in the market and the Gloucestershire scenes are magical. Consequently, the more sombre mood of the political scenes means they lack a little of the same energy: there’s little of the sense of musicality and attention to evoking the varying locations that characterised Part One and kept the attention even in the quieter scenes: only a singing monk walking round the back of the circle during a scene captured the same level of invention for me.
And finally to Roger Allam’s Falstaff, a magisterial performance that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from the outset (literally in one case, as he fed slices of cheese to the groundlings, along with a mightily witty aside which if not scripted should be put in every night!) He displays a similar wonderful chemistry with his new playmates here as he did with Hal in Part One, still infused with a remarkable zeal but it is in the slow acceptance of his true situation that Allam excels and really tugs the heartstrings.
There was a little debate amongst our party and a group of American tourists about whether this works as a stand-alone play or not. I think the consensus we reached was that it just about does, but I still maintain that the finale, with Hal’s repudiation of Falstaff, only makes real sense and has the necessary devastating impact unless you have seen their camaraderie from Part One, they barely have any scenes together in this play.
Still it is hugely enjoyable and put together with Part 1, equals six hours of stonkingly good theatre. The mummers kick things off again in the Yard and as I was in amongst the groundlings for the first time this year, I have to say I loved it. It’s a much more social atmosphere; one’s attention is grabbed by the smaller details, the rich harmonies in the singing, the use of the same green tweed fabric in all of Hal’s costumes and just how hard the extras work in the swift scene changes. Recommended.