Arts review: Henry IV, Part II and Henry V – skilful portrayals by versatile cast

Royal Shakespeare Company’s King and Country series finishes with humour and darkness in the last of the Bard’s four-part story of English monarchs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 3:00pm

After opening triumphantly with Henry IV, Part I, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King and Country continues and concludes with Henry IV, Part II and Henry V.

While there is still much comedy in Henry IV, Part II, it’s a darker play than its predecessor. Instead of the parallel between two young men, Prince Hal and Hotspur, here the focus is on two old men, Falstaff and King Henry, heading towards death.

Simon Thorp is a moving Henry, tormented by his guilt over King Richard’s murder and the burdens of kingship. Antony Sher’s gradual introduction of bleaker notes as Falstaff faces his own mortality and the pathos of his response to Hal’s final rejection (“I know thee not, old man”) complete a definitive portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.

Alex Hassell makes Hal’s coming of age convincing, notably in the culmination of his friendship with Poins (the excellent Sam Marks).

This is the weakest of the three plays in terms of structure and director Gregory Doran’s pacing is less certain than in the previous chapter – a few judicious cuts wouldn’t hurt. The Gloucestershire scenes are very funny, with a terrific double act from Oliver Ford Davies as Shallow and Jim Hooper as Silence.

However, the knockabout farce treatment of the bawdy scenes in Eastcheap, with Antony Byrne’s over-the-top Pistol and Emma King’s strident Doll Tearsheet becomes tiresome, as do the seemingly endless monologues from Sarah Parks’ Mistress Quickly.

Henry V is a far more upbeat affair, packed with action, patriotic fervour and broad comedy (the splendidly politically incorrect send-ups of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, not to mention the French, still resonate today).

Shakespeare and Doran manage this volatile mix with consummate skill, not forgetting more sombre moments – Mistress Quickly’s poignant account of Falstaff’s death, the grim thoughts of ordinary soldiers on the eve of battle, the haunting singing of a Te Deum after the battle of Agincourt.

Hassell comes into his own in the title role – intense and iron-willed, keeping a tight rein on emotions which occasionally explode, he is equally believable as soldier, king and ruefully inept wooer of Jennifer Kirby’s enchanting Princess Katherine. While he does well with the iconic speeches, Hassell’s most powerful moment comes when Henry gives thanks to God after learning how few of his army have been killed.

There is fine work from the whole cast – Joshua Richards follows his touching Bardolph with a wily Fluellen; Byrne is much funnier as Pistol after dialling it down a notch and Ford Davies is superb as the Prologue.

The company’s versatility and skill, with most actors switching between several varied roles are consistently impressive.

The three productions, which are part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, are further enhanced by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s designs, spare and elegant with a subtle medieval feel and brilliant use of back projection to create different settings.

Henry IV, Part II and Henry V

Royal Shakespeare Company

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Reviewed: March 12, 2pm and 7.30pm