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King Henry IV

by on 10 April 2022

To Pluck Bright Honour

King Henry IV, Parts One and Two

by William Shakespeare

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 23rd April

Review by Celia Bard

The RSS must be congratulated for mounting what must be considered a hugely challenging production for directors and cast alike.  When deciding to attend both productions on the same day, I feared it might be an endurance test.  Not so, for I was very soon drawn into this gripping historical tale of power, honour and rebellion that is the essence of Part I.   In King Henry IV part II the emphasis shifts to the burden of power, old age and atonement.   I would suggest, if possible, that any prospective audience member try and see Part I before seeing Part II.   For me, the latter seems more an afterthought, and if not familiar with these plays, despite the prologue, characters and events might be confusing.   

Running in repertory, RSS’s King Henry IV double bill is co-directed by Simon Bartlett and Deborah Campbell.   The opening scene of Part 1 recounts the battle and death of King Henry’s predecessor, King Richard II.  Part I of this production was brilliantly staged, including very good use of the auditorium.  The battle scenes were superb, including the sword fighting choreography.  The lighting plot, never intrusive, provided great background mood settings to a number of intense moments in the play.  Likewise the costumes were appropriate, cleverly suggestive of the 15th Century.  Junis Olmsheid was responsible for yet another superb stylistic stage design complete with spotlights, banners and a large circular flat shape on the floor, thus helping to create an appearance of depth.   This combined with an imaginative lighting plot, managed to convey different stage settings, namely the Court, The Boar’s Head, the Roadside and others.   Scene changes on the whole were restricted to the moving of bits of furniture and props, and this helped the actual pace and rhythm of the action.  The production incorporates music and singing in the theatrical mix, and this added to the overall enjoyment of the production.  The challenge for the main actors participating in both performances is to suggest an increased awareness and maturity whether it be age, failing health or personal responsibility.  Generally speaking this was well managed by most of the actors. 

In all honesty I could not fault the Henry IV Part I production, which truly captured the spirit of the play.  The direction, quality of the acting, the togetherness of the ensemble, pathos, humour, energy, pace were just perfect.  I would rate it on par with the War of the Roses trilogy at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in 2015; hard to believe it was that long ago.  I did not feel the same about Part II and here the word ‘moderation’ springs to mind.  The play does provide opportunities for individual actors to display comic skills, but at times the humour verged on caricature.  Whereas all voices were controlled and measured in Part I, in Part II especially scenes in which anger and temper are vented, the screaming became so intense that intelligibility was lost.  At times also in Part II,  I became so distracted by the ‘business’ of by-standers on stage that I lost concentration and missed the content of some speeches, e.g.  Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern.   However, those scenes that reflected the state of the rebellion, the health and death of the King, the fall from grace of Falstaff redressed the balance between creditability and distorted exaggeration.

Actors playing different roles and different gender in the same production can be problematic, but this was not the case here.   Luciano Dodero who plays Harry Percy, known as Hotspur, is outstanding in this role.  He, like Falstaff, is able to break the fourth wall and this creates a special intimacy between actor and audience.  Dodero also plays Lord Hastings in Part II and is equally as effective.  Lily Tomlinson forcefully plays the younger son of King Henry IV, Prince John of Lancaster.  I was completely convinced by her performance.  Her hairstyle, striking features and costume attire together with her youth all worked for her, and I completely forgot this was a young woman acting this role.   Another gender switch was Cath Messum who plays Glendower, leader of the Welsh rebels, and said to have supernatural powers.  Such was the quality of her ability to play a male role I soon forgot any reservations I may have had about gender. 

“Heavy Is the Head That Wears the Crown”

Terry Bedell was convincing in his roles as first the Duke of Worcester, one of the rebels.  He is brother of Northumberland and uncle of Hotspur and is the one who influences his impressionable young nephew.   He is just as convincing in his second role, Lord Mowbray, another rebel. 

An actor who played not one, not two, but three roles was Francis Abbott: the Archbishop of York; Peto, a frequent visitor to the Boar’s Head; and the senile Justice Silence.  An admirable quality of this actor is his ability to immerse himself in a character, so each comes across as uniquely different.  He also has a strong sense of timing and a feel for comedy.  The visual image of him being slung across the shoulders of Scott Tilley, playing Pistol, will stay with me for a long time.  Tilley is another actor who immerses himself in role.  In addition to playing Pistol, an often drunk, drinking companion of Falstaff, he also takes on the role of the fearsome, rebellious, Lord Douglas, leader of the Scots, who eventually becomes an ally of the Percys in their revolt against Henry IV.  He is described as “the ever-valiant and approved Scot”.  Both these roles suit Tilley for they allow him to play to his strengths as an actor.

Actors who appear in both productions provided continuity.  The anguished and troubled King Henry IV, acted sensitively by Matthew Flexman, provided a glimpse into past events against the King he has become … conscientious and anxious to live up to the responsibilities of Kingship and deeply concerned about the outrageous behaviour of Hal, his son.  In contrast Lord Northumberland, father to Hotspur, at first comes across as cold and aloof, but the anguish he feels on hearing about the death of his son is very real but, as true to his character, he decides to continue the rebellion. 

One delightful scene is that between Lady Mortimer, played by Abi Tresise and Lord Mortimer, played by Pete Messum.  He speaks no Welsh, and she speaks no English.  How do they communicate?   Through music.  Tresise not only mesmerises the rest of the cast with her beautiful singing of a Welsh song but also the audience.  This was a moment in the play which is pure gold. 

The wife of Hotspur, Lady Percy, is played by Francesca Ellis.  In her scenes with him, she is both fiery and sexy.  In Henry IV Part II, there was, oddly for her, a problem with audibility when begging Northumberland not to join the rebels.  Caroline Ross Tajasque as Mistress Quickly and Lynne Harrison as Doll Tearsheet provide some outrageous examples of wanton and undesirable behaviour.  Both are enthusiastic in their demands for action and give big performances; however, there are occasions when moderation was called for in the screechy outbursts. 

Henry, Prince of Wales known as Prince Hal is the high-spirited, wayward eldest son of Henry IV, played by Christopher Capon.  Hal is a complex character and Capon managed to portray much of this in his characterisation.  Some of his best speeches include his scene with Falstaff when his acting as King to Falstaff’s Prince Hall and in Part II when he begs his father’s forgiveness for taking the Crown and for his past behaviour. 

John Gilbert gives an interesting performance as Sir John Falstaff.  Yes, he is lecherous, lustful and lascivious.  He tells fibs, he elaborates on the truth, he is a cheat, and he steals.  He is all these things, but Gilbert finds something in the character that makes him endearing.  He and Christopher Capon capture the comic-tragic relationship that exists between Falstaff and Prince Hal.  The denial of their relationship by the latter is truly a great moment of theatre and you cannot help but feel for Falstaff.  Knowing that Hal is now King, leads Falstaff to believe that all his monetary troubles are behind him.  He can now repay all outstanding debts and be generous to all his friends.  All these dreams and hope are crushed by Hal’s repudiation, even if he can’t bring himself to accept the new reality of Hal’s position.  Gilbert is brilliant in this role and is one of the actors who portrays different stages in the ageing process.  Most of all he has some wonderful comic lines and Gilbert is not an actor to forego exploitation of the possibilities this affords him. 

This RSS production does not finish until Saturday 23rd April (both St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday – and the day of his death) so there is still time to purchase tickets.  I would recommend this production to anyone who likes Shakespeare.  It combines both wit and tragedy that makes it a perfect introduction to Shakespeare’s History plays.  Perhaps in the future the RSS will consider the possibility of producing the trilogy, with King Henry V, which follows on from King Henry IV Parts I and II !

Celia Bard, April 2022

Photography by Simone Germaine

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