Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 16 August
, 2007
**** / ***
/ ***

At the beginning of the year, Jonathan Slinger was lauded for his performance in the title role of Richard III, the chronological end of Shakespeare's eight-play history cycle currently in production by RSC artistic director Michael Boyd. Now – and more pronouncedly in a few months, when all eight go on show together in Stratford and then London – we see Slinger bookend the cycle with a remarkable Richard II. This Richard is almost a ghost right from the beginning: his face white-leaded, moving with awkward formality in robes that make him look like a puppet, and unable from the first to exercise kingly authority. There is something of Lear in the way Slinger's Richard muses ever more obsessively upon losing his throne, so that his usurpation by Clive Wood's (far more substantial but less dramatically interesting) Bolingbroke becomes the payoff to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, stripped of his finery, his curly bronze wig discarded to reveal a shaven, scabby skull, Richard comes into his own with some degree of assurance, despite his awareness that his lot is imprisonment and murder.

Even compared to regular five-show days in Edinburgh this month, the RSC's tripartite press day proved gruelling, with Henry IV part 2 ending more than twelve hours after Richard II began. Some plays can be gobbled by the handful, but not these. The constant realignments of court and rebel factions begin to sound like their Beyond The Fringe parody: "Get thee to Gloucester, Essex; do thee to Wessex, Exeter", and so on. Some landmarks stand out. Lex Shrapnel's Hotspur in part 1, as well as sporting the requisite amount of choler, is both unexpectedly sardonic at times and the cause of sardonicism in others. Chris McGill's Prince John begins in part 2 to grow into a wily, oath-breaking politician when he negotiates an end to the Archbishop of York's rebellion then imprisons its leaders. Maureen Beattie is a fiery Mistress Quickly in the Eastcheap scenes, and Forbes Masson as the personification of Rumour oversees a number of contentious news dispatches at various points in part 2.

But the twin foci of the Henry IV diptych are of course Falstaff and Prince Hal. David Warner is a little understuffed as Falstaff, so that his gut hangs over his belt, growing more pendulous with age. Warner is a master of mood, but not (on press day) always of lines: even the reprobate old knight's single moment of unambiguous gravity, his battlefield speech about honour, contained a fluff, and he also loses words when he briefly bellows. But this is an actor as fully in control of his character as Falstaff himself is of his Falstaffian persona at least until the closing minutes when, having been snubbed by the new king, he loses his sure footing. Geoffrey Streatfeild gives a Hal the like of which I have never seen before: he is almost entirely unsympathetic. Hardly ever does human warmth creep into his psycho stare; his disgust with the tavern debauchery is palpable throughout, so that there is no surprise in either his prophetic "I know you all..." speech in part 1 or its fulfilment at the end of part 2, when the new king resolves to be virtuous and conscientious and disowns his former mentor Falstaff. One is left with no idea what Hal was doing in Eastcheap in the first place, and an ambivalent anticipation as to how Streatfeild can make a national darling out of such a figure in the forthcoming Henry V.

But a cycle like this will always have surprises, and not always from the writing or the company. In the afternoon of press day, one bank of the Courtyard audience was pressed into service as Falstaff's shabby conscripts, to be insulted on all sides for their unfitness as troops; a few hours later one of those victims, when asked by an actor during an interpolated clowning sequence to replace a stepladder, instead snatched it away. Never take your audience for granted, as Falstaff can testify.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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