Having begun in the middle of the English histories with Henry V and worked outwards in both directions, Terry Hands now arrives simultaneously at the beginning and the end of the cycle with this production and tonight's Richard III.
While the event shows the RSC company at full stretch, it would be idle to deny that much of the appeal lies in seeing how Alan Howard - having graced the throne in every production so far - will shape up to the two most contrasted monarchs in the whole history. That comparison must wait until tonight. Meanwhile we have a version of Richard II which converts the play from a lyrical prelude into a compressed epic.
The sense of historical transition is graphically conveyed by Farrah's stage, a hinged wooden panel which serves both as an angled back wall and a ramp; first seen so as to show off a set of bas-relief effigies against which the company appear in equally emblematic postures, as flat as playing cards. By the end of the evening this secure mediaeval world has been left far behind, and we are in a shaky real world of claustrophobic rooms and torch-lit streets, with a middle-aged Bolingbroke in steel-rimmed glasses already crushed with guilt and fears for his dynasty.
It may be Mr Howard's show, but nothing defines its long-range development better than David Suchet's Bolingbroke, who begins as an armour-plated cipher, then matures into an affably open-hearted invader and a coldly-masked opportunist, before finishing as a haunted figure bent under the weight of usurped kingship.
In one of his few liberties with the text, Mr Hands has cut the lines with which Exton delivers Richard's body. After the Pomfret murder, Exton and the corpse remain on stage while Bolingbroke descends the ramp, despatching the doggerel couplets about the Westminster conspiracy, as if in a terrible dream, until he comes face to face with his old enemy. From the beginning of the scene he knows about the murder. Aside from the light it casts on the future, this supplies a brilliant solution to the notoriously feeble final scene.
The first thing to be said of Mr Howard's performance is that he does Richard out of the arias. "What shall the king do now?" is delivered in a terrified gabble. He really wants to know. It is the panic-stricken demand of an actor who has forgotten his lines. Richard famously embodies the equation between acting and kingship, and such is Mr Howard's general approach to the part. What counts, though, is the detail with which he fills it out.
Before things start going wrong he radiates invulnerability in costumes conveying the insistent imagery of the sun. His early troubles are all with nagging uncles (evidently including the murdered Gloucester); and the scenes with York and Gaunt reduce him to weary exhaustion and abrupt, peevish returns to protocol. Announcing his seizure of the dead Gaunt's estate, he cups a hand to his ear ready for the inevitable blast from Tony Church's York. It is a beautifully-placed moment, after a maliciously unfeeling exchange with his cronies, that the royal playboy moves downstage and says of York: "He always loved us", in puzzled apprehension of the bad times to come.
When they do arrive, Mr Howard, no less than his adversary, plays things as they come. The introspective Richard, returning to the womb of fantasy as a refuge from the comfortless world, gets a fair showing. But what defines the performance as the work of a great actor is the immense speed of its emotional transitions. In the mirror scene, for instance, he moves in a matter of seconds from lachrymose self-pity to spitting contempt and sardonic defiance.
The main surprise is to find so much comedy in the role; and this is true of the rest of the production which extracts laughs from some decidedly unexpected places and scores an unlooked for success with the usually cut Aumerle intrigue.