By: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Richard Twyman
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Friday 18th January 2008
Unlike yesterday, when we saw a play much improved since the summer, tonight we saw a play which improved in some areas, but which seemed determined to focus its energy on the audience directly in front of the stage. As we were to the side, I found I lost quite a bit in various scenes, especially the tavern scene, although most of the rest worked reasonably well for us ‘outcasts’. Still, Hal’s performance had come on from the summer, and there were a lot of interesting echo points within the cycle.
To start, Rumour entered as before with Richard’s cheap coffin. (Well, he’d spent all of the treasury during his reign, so there probably wasn’t enough money to get him a decent one.) I noticed that Rumour (also Bagot, of course), woke Richard by kissing his hand, which I think is new, and for some of the lines, e.g. “The acts commencèd on this ball of earth”, he indicated by gesturing toward the coffin that Richard’s killing is the source of everyone’s problems. As before, he kindly included all the audience in his “household”.
Next we see the results of Rumour’s naughty ways, as Northumberland is beset with conflicting reports of the battle. As usual, the man who’s wrong, Lord Bardolph, is the most cocksure, and the most crestfallen when the real story is accepted. I noticed that Chuk Iwuji was playing the messenger with the bad news, here called Sir John Colville, though in the text it’s a character called Morton. Chuk also played the messenger part assigned to Scroop in Richard II, and brought similar bad news to that king, drawing out the delivery of it so long that the king had time for several speeches and changes of heart before being finally overwhelmed by it all. Here, Northumberland prevents such a long drawn out affair by going straight to the important part, Hotspur’s death, and keeping the focus on that. A tiny reverse echo, but we’re starting to pick these up now. Sir John Colville also ends with the good news here, while Scroop leaves the worst till last.
Now Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice (LCJ) have their first sparring match. This came across clearly, and at the end, when Sir John says “I will turn diseases to commodity”, he added a cough, very appropriate at this time. I did feel that Falstaff was lacking the joie de vivre that really has to be part of his character. I felt there was a lack of smugness in the line “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” On one level, Falstaff actually believes the lies he tells, and that bolsters his already large ego to a point of insufferability, but it also makes him partly innocent of wrongdoing (at least in his eyes), and allows us to like him even as he’s being loathsome. I didn’t get that from tonight’s performance, nor an alternative reading that satisfied me, but the verbal sparring with the LCJ worked well enough, and Falstaff’s relationship with the prince was established sufficiently for Hal’s changes towards Falstaff to show up clearly.
The plotting by the rebels wasn’t so clear this time, and here I felt the reason was that the actors were simply talking too fast for me to make out what they were saying. This happened a few times tonight, and I would rather they hadn’t trimmed ten minutes off the running time (it’s not a competition, lads) and given us more time to savour the dialogue. Mistress Quickly is next up, bringing the officers to arrest Sir John. Again I missed some of this, but I found Maureen Beattie’s performance as the flirtatious but “respectable” widow just as funny as before. Between coming on to the LCJ, and then casting her eyes down in an attempt to look like a virtuous wronged woman, she kept us well entertained.
Now Hal is wheeled on, on the bed, in repose, as it were, and we get a reprise of his first scene with Falstaff. This time, it’s Poins who gets the bottle and soaks the prince’s head. Apart from that, there seemed to be more activity than I remember, but again it didn’t come across so clearly as before. From checking the text, I see that Poins is supposed to take the letter from Hal and read out the bulk of it; in this version, Hal continues to read to the end.
The discussion among Northumberland, his wife and Hotspur’s widow, is a confusing scene at the best of times. The ex-Mrs Percy has a good speech, about Northumberland honouring his son’s memory by not dashing off to help others when he refused to help his own son, and I can hear the sarcasm and bitterness of it on the page, never mind in performance. Here it seemed more like an intellectual argument, and Northumberland’s change of mind was inexplicable. Other than letting us know he’s not going to turn up for the battle again, I can’t see the point of this.
The tavern scene was largely lost on me, although I did pick up on some minor details in Falstaff’s performance, especially the way he interacts with Pistol, exchanging looks with him as he lies back in his chair, Pistol above him. One change was that instead of Peto bringing in the news that the King is at Westminster, it’s good old Rumour/Bagot who does that job. It’s also Rumour/Bagot who takes the letters from the King to the Earls of Surrey and Warwick at the start of the next scene.
The King wasn’t looking well in that scene, and he didn’t get any better by the end of it. After the insomniac speech, pretty well done I thought, the Earls arrive, and Warwick begins to show his reasonableness, advising the King not to get things out of proportion. He refers to Rumour during this speech, and it just so happens Rumour has reappeared to underline this reference – he is a busy boy. Now we get some additional lines stolen from Act 4 scene 3. After Warwick and Surrey have calmed the King, Rumour arrives to inform him that Northumberland and several of the king’s other enemies are dead. To prove it, he carries a bloody head in a sack, and throws it at the king’s feet, just as happened at the end of Richard II. The king then takes a funny turn, not too surprisingly, given his guilt at Richard’s death, and possibly even at his deposing. I wasn’t aware that this was a tweak to the text at the time. It just seemed to flow naturally, and made sense of the King’s condition. Following this, Richard II himself appeared on the upper story of the metal drum, and after the lords left, Henry stood, looking at Richard, as the ashes/dust/sand fell from above on his head. Blackout. I liked this ending to the first half, which I’m confident is new since the summer.
I was getting a bit worried in the interval, as I’d told a number of people that there was something worth watching on stage before the second half started, and it seemed to take a long time to get going. But eventually we were treated to Davey (Matt Costain) giving us his silent comedy version of putting up the bunting. Just as good as before, and this time there was a strapping young man in the vicinity to help him get back on his ladder.
This sets the scene very well for Shallow’s orchard, the first time we see the Gloucestershire part of the play. I’m often surprised by how late some scenes appear, and how little we see of some characters, and I reflected that my memory of the previous performance had left me thinking that there were more rural scenes, and that they came much earlier. Ah well, so much for my memory. Still, it means I’m constantly surprised, and often delighted, when I watch plays again, so maybe it’s no bad thing.
I found this the best Shallow and Silence I had seen when we attended in the summer, and I wasn’t disappointed this time either. These scenes, plus Hal’s performance, were the best things tonight for me. Shallow was just as lascivious, Silence just as laconic, and I’m grateful that Michael Boyd hasn’t found a way to add pongorama to his theatrical toolkit, otherwise Mouldy would have been assaulting all our nostrils for real. I still hanker to have a bird falling from the sky after Mouldy has discharged his musket, but maybe that’s too ‘cheep’ for Michael Boyd. (Sadly, ‘cheep’ puns are not too cheap for me.) Unfortunately, I find myself preferring Shallow and Silence to Falstaff in this production, therefore it’s not so easy to enjoy his desire to gull them. The suggestion that maybe Falstaff and Shallow have enjoyed a sexually intimate relationship when at St Clements Inn is clearly expressed in Shallow’s leering when talking about a night they spent together, although as they also talk about a “bona roba” at this point, it may have been a really wild night!
Next we have the betrayal and capture of the remaining rebels (they’re dropping fast), which was less clear, but still got across the rebels’ stupidity in trusting Prince John. More specifically, the Archbishop’s stupidity – some of the others are not happy to send their troops away. This ups the stakes, and shows a greater level of ruthlessness which will only get worse as civil strife reasserts itself a play and bit away.
The next scene, where Falstaff accepts the surrender of Sir John Colville, is straightforward, but relatively uninteresting apart from Falstaff’s paean on the virtues of sherry sack, which is good fun. Now we return to the dying King, and another good scene where we get to see Henry and Hal’s final reconciliation before Hal becomes Henry V. I very much liked the way Geoffrey Streatfeild shows us Hal having to learn to be a king. So often, once his father dies, his heir simply rips off his cloak and becomes Superking in an instant. Here we get to see the process he’s going through, dealing with his father’s death and what that means on a personal level, as well as the massive change it makes in his life by giving him the crown. Steve saw an echo in the way Hal is lying on the bed beside his father as they’re wheeled off, to the original way Hal and Falstaff first arrived on stage, lying side by side on a bed. I noticed that Hal and the king hold the crown on either side, just as Richard and Henry do in the deposition scene in Richard II. I felt Clive Wood is showing more of the King’s vulnerability and how the illness is affecting his mind, while Geoffrey Streatfeild is showing much more of Hal’s emotional state.
After a short trip back to Gloucestershire, we see Hal’s first steps as king. The court, in the persons of Hal’s brothers, Warwick, and the LCJ, are gravely concerned about the new king’s likely attitude. Hal himself has clearly not yet grown into his kingship, and this is emphasised throughout this scene. The most telling example is Hal’s treatment of the LCJ. Initially, the new king is angry about his earlier treatment at the LCJ’s hands, even clenching his fists in anger, but the LCJ’s arguments win him over, and the new king realises not only that he still has a lot to learn, but that he needs the help and guidance the LCJ can provide. It’s an interesting demonstration of his character’s growth, but more is to come.
The last scene in Gloucestershire gives us a chance to laugh before the emotional finale. Silence has obviously had too much to drink, and is no longer silent, breaking into song every few minutes. Davey is cooking apples on a fire pit, and the rest are busy trying to join Silence in drunkenness, despite Davey’s procrastination in dishing out refills, when Pistol arrives with news of the King’s death and Hal’s succession. Off they all trot, full of the expectation of plenty. Shakespeare cunningly undercuts this immediately, by showing us Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly being dragged off to prison, despite Doll being pregnant by a sofa.
After the coronation, the procession of the king and his court comes down the spiral staircase from the top level. As King Henry reaches the balcony, Falstaff calls out to him, and receives his rebuke and rejection. This costs Henry dearly. It’s clear he’s torn. Although he knows he has to reject Falstaff to fully claim his new life, he doesn’t want to hurt him as such, and the emotional cost is clear on his face. After the rabble have been imprisoned in the big wire cage, Henry reappears at the front of the stage, looking directly at Falstaff, and they stare at each other for a long moment, as the LCJ and Prince John, on the balcony, prepare us for the next play. Finally, Henry turns away, and stands alone at the front of the stage as the lights go out. It’s a very good visual and emotional image to end on.
One point I missed going through – at the start of these plays, members of the cast have been coming on to ask the audience to switch off mobiles, etc. Tonight it was the turn of Hal himself, and Geoffrey Streatfeild did a lovely bit of hesitation before announcing which play was on tonight, as if he couldn’t quite remember. Also, immediately after his father’s death, Hal appears dressed in black to talk to his brothers and the LCJ. This is the only time he wears this colour in this production, and for me it signals his change of allegiance, as well as simply being his mourning clothes. For the coronation, however, he’s back to his splendid white, so it won’t just be business as usual with this king. Roll on tomorrow and Henry V.