Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.
It’s been said, not unreasonably, that Henry IV Part 2 is something of a filler story between the clash of titans in Henry IV Part 1 and whatever happens in Henry V. Both of the two plotlines of the first part are carried forward – the continued rebellion against Henry IV and the jollies of Falstaff, with Prince Hal transitioning between the two, but this time the stories are more separate. Hal has made his commitment to kinghood and he and Falstaff barely speak. The rebels have been scattered and their leader is dead, so much of their story involves people standing in corners frustratedly shouting at each other. Consequently, much of the play is taken up with the adventures of Falstaff.
This was not an accident, Falstaff was an extremely popular character when he first appeared on stage and so takes a larger role in the sequel and then got a whole play to himself in the Merry Wives of Windsor. He is a ridiculous unrepentant layabout and Helen Schlesinger again gives it all in gusto. She took advantage of the protuding stage into the audience in full, striding over and taking audience’s cans of beer and swigging them while delivering her monologues about sack. I noted to myself “not a lot happens but it’s great”.
As with Henry IV Part 1, there is a stripped down cast with each playing multiple characters, but in this performance, it had been made more explicit. I watched in absolute amazement as a scene in a brothel with Falstaff and his servant Ancient Pistol emptied out, leaving only his Mistress Doll Tearsheet, who slowly started to remove her garments and wipe the lipstick from her face until King Henry IV was before us. I had not noticed they were the same actor, at all, until that moment. It was probably the most striking part of the play for me.
The monologue that Henry IV goes on to deliver mentions his intended promise to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to make up for stealing the crown of Richard II, which I had seen staged seen earlier in the year. It was one of several moments that were essentially fan service for those who’ve seen all the plays. Henry IV then dies and Prince Hal becomes Henry V, to the rapture of his former drinking buddies including Falstaff, who hurtles down to the front of the stage/London to await his coronation. Unfortunately and to Falstaff’s great surprise, King Henry V repudiates him in public and moves on. The actor played it brilliantly, and you could feel his genuine sorrow underneath the bluster.
The play then ended rather abruptly, which I was somewhat surprised for what is, after all, a product of one of our greatest playwrights. I’ve looked at the text and there is an epilogue that I believe was missed out of the performance, perhaps because it references Falstaff appearing in Henry V, which he doesn’t, or perhaps because it was a bit to Elizabethan (asking the audience to pray for the queen). I don’t know, but that might at least solve the mystery.
This was also another play where I took someone along who had never seen a *play* before, never mind Shakespeare, but had absolutely loved it and said that he’d never thought of Shakespeare as something performed in front of drunks cheering you on (they weren’t that drunk). Falstaff for the win!