When Alan Howard as Prince Hal, the emergent Henry V, tried on the English crown for the first time, I thought the weight would kill him. It is a strange kind of agony that possesses his face; it shifts to accommodate hope, joy, triumph, without ever ceasing to be pain. Mr Howard has a broad spacious face; there is room.
There is room all over Terry Hands's Stratford production of Henry IV Part 2; it is, like the play itself, marvellously inclusive and unfettered. It roams, but it does not wander. That agonised assumption of royalty is, in every sense, its crowning moment; and it nails, not just this play, but the triptych of which it is the centre. We have already seen Henry IV Part I and Henry V, the first of these done dimly and the second triumphantly. The new production falls between the other two in quality as well as in historic sequence; but the unity of the whole is beyond question.
It resides essentially of course in Mr Howard's performance. When we first meet him in this play he is what Rosalind called "a moonish youth." Military glory he has had; it has not turned him on much, but it has spoiled him for pub-crawling and brothel-creeping. (In this production the two activities are virtually synonymous.) Mr Howard has a trick, which I have often found irritating, of acting to himself; lucid and malleable in soliloquy, he freezes over in dialogue, intoning the verse in slabs instead of exploring it line by line. This season has found him more fluent than ever before; and it has also provided him with justification for his solitude. Henry V slaps many backs, but he looks into few faces; and the two Henry IV plays constitute a long practice-run for the eventual, inevitable isolation.
In Part Two, the process is far advanced. Hal's first scene is a weary (his word) colloquy with Poins, ostensibly his sole remaining confidant; Mr Howard aims most of his speeches somewhere past his companion's right ear. Trevor Peacock's Poins is quick-witted enough to deal with routine cynicism (it's his own stock-in-trade), but this disillusion, which we would call alienation, fazes him. Between them these two actors build a whole neglected relationship.
On to the tavern to spy on Falstaff. "How shall we disguise ourselves?" is the question, farcically bored, of someone who hardly cares to hear the answer. ("Drawers," if you are interested.) The Falstaff he beholds is, in Brewster Mason's performance, softer-centred than he might be; his bitching at Hal and Poins is mellow rather than tetchy. (It's backed by soothing lute-music and Mr Mason appears to be acting the music instead of the text.) So Hal's anger seems under-motivated, and the scene only catches alight when, at the words "his grace says that which his flesh and blood rebels against," Falstaff literally thrusts him into the arms of Doll Tearsheet.
For a moment Hal might succumb (body-contact must be a rare sensation for him), but military news calls him away into the play's other world. Falstaff has made him look and feel a fool and there will be no forgiveness. The official rejection at the end of the play is the merest formal epilogue delivered by Hal, aloof and invulnerable (until the next play starts and presents him with fresh problems) in golden armour. Dear Arts Council: it was the only visual extravagance in the production and thoroughly justified.
Otherwise all is plain. The stage is backed by a cannon, which is removed when peace breaks out, and by a great tree with barren branches. For the scenes in Justice Shallow's orchard the floor is strewn with autumn leaves; nobody seems in any hurry to unstrew them, so they remain, an apt motif for a deciduous play. "Death, saith the Psalmist" (saith Shallow) "is certain; all shall die." Henry IV himself has nothing to do in the play but die. He does it with dignity, forsaking vanity; to put it less delicately, Emrys James no longer indulges in the overworked displays of hysterical meanness with which he sought in Part One, to justify his son's aversion. He howls like a wolf at the thought of England under a King Hal; and it is only here that Mr Howard's defences really break. For a naked moment he is caught between roles (wanton prince, hero-king) and there is contact. It comes almost too late; but that's Shakespeare, and this is nearly tragedy.
Should Falstaff likewise smell of mortality? Should he have misgivings as to his ultimate success? I think so; but Mr Mason grants him a virtually unchecked progress, blind and hopeful, towards abrupt disillusion. The pox and the gout may gnaw at him, but his limp is not pronounced, and his voice still strides. That voice is as robust and authoritative an instrument as our theatre owns; what Mr Mason does, he does magisterially. In the tavern scene he even gets momentarily rattled, but mostly he is in command, genial and even benevolent.
This is Falstaff seen through the eyes of Mistress Quickly; and when he cheats her we mind it as little as she does. This might be because Maureen Pryor is too tough an actress to encompass the hostess's loquacious silliness, to immerse herself in the woman's stream of consciousness. You cannot play Quickly slowly. But Sydney Bromley finds the right rhythm for Shallow's memories, while Mr Peacock, resurfacing as Silence, verges on the out-of-this-world, bent double and exploding into inexplicable, unquenchable carousal. Falstaff and the two justices, reminiscing in tempo, are the most amazing sight of an amazing play. Behind them stands Tim Wylton's Bardolph, a sodden batman, his voice a chuckling, gravelly echo of his master's, his red-scarred pate giving him the look of a damaged samurai. If Bardolph is fathoms deep in drink, Mr Wylton is fathoms deep in Bardolph.
Fine small performances breed unstoppably; Oliver Ford-Davies as Wart, the ragged recruit pushed into musket-drill, distils a strange and frazzled dignity merely by standing still. Bob Peck as Mowbray, hard-boned and suspicious, vitalises the intractable rebellion scenes. Indeed, though Mr Hands's production lacks any overt political edge, the episodes of royal treachery stand out in the sharpest relief. And right back at the beginning of the play I remember Clement McCallin's direct force as Northumberland (a symbolist born, who says he'll throw away his staff of sickness and promptly does); and I remember (though I do not honestly approve) the division of the complex prologue spoken by Rumour among all the members of the company.* This may do great things for their team-spirit but newcomers to the play (or is Stratford no longer concerned with them?) must find the words difficult to follow.
The Observer Review, 29.6.75