This is the second half of my review of King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings which I attended at the Barbican last month, as part of the ongoing celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary since the year of Shakespeare’s death.
In my previous post I discussed Richard II, so this post will focus on the Henrys; Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, and Henry V.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
I must start by saying that unlike Richard II, I had neither seen nor read any of the Henry plays until I saw them performed in London. This meant that I was coming to them with a completely fresh perspective and didn’t have past interpretations to cloud or colour my enjoyment.
Henry IV parts one and two are very much a coming of age story, not of the King, but of his son Hal (so named in the first play, Prince Henry in the second, and finally becoming King Henry V in the last of the tetralogy). At the start of the play the Prince is estranged from his father, seen drinking and cavorting in taverns with a crowd of very un-princely companions, even taking part in a robbery. But Hal soon confides to the audience that this is all just an act; he’s pretending to be bad so that when he finally reforms himself his transformation is all the more impressive, especially to his father.
“Yea, there thou makest me sad, and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blesst a son:
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue, […]
Whilst I by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
of my young Harry”
Alex Hassell was a very convincing Hal. You believed he was a real person, with real motivations, and not merely a character in a play. However, it felt like a somewhat cold portrayal of the Prince. He seemed clever and calculating, and you were never quite sure if he valued the friendship of his companions or not. There was no doubting that this was a man that would become capable of leading the English to victory at Agincourt, but I’m not entirely sure you were rooting for him. Alex Hassell said in an interview with the Guardian “I don’t care about Henry being liked by the audience. But I want them to come out debating his actions.” and this sums it up perfectly.
When people discuss Henry IV parts one and two, the first thing you hear mentioned is Falstaff. One of Shakespeare’s most famous creations, Sir John Falstaff is a fictional comic character in a world of historical tragedy; something different, something unexpected, and something hugely popular with audiences.
For the most part, however, he was not a character I enjoyed. I appreciate that this is a controversial opinion. What I like most about Richard II is that all the characters are based upon real people, all of what happens – however loosely – is based upon real events; it is a play with history very much at its core, and tragedy its swansong. Henry IV part one is a different matter. The King himself has only a small part in his own play – the majority of lines being split fairly evenly between Hotspur, Hal, and Falstaff – and instead a large part of the action is focused upon Sir John and his companions at the tavern in Eastcheap, providing the sort of lewd, loud humour that appealed completely to Elizabethan audiences (and still does today if the reaction of our audience was anything to go by!)
The redeeming feature of Falstaff was, for me, his brutal honesty. Just when I thought I’d had enough of him, he’d come out with something so truthful – often unpleasantly truthful – that you had to turn back your attention and listen to every word. The pinnacle of this was his famous “what is honour” catechism, which Antony Sher delivered with a subtle poignancy quite apart from the humour of the rest of his lines.
“Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that ‘honour’? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it.”
Overall I enjoyed the first play of Henry IV more than the second. Part one, in my opinion, had a singular advantage in so far as it had Hotspur. He provided the perfect foil for Hal and was a dynamic leader of the rebels, who, having grown dissatisfied with their choice of Henry IV as king, now wish to revert the crown to Richard’s named heir, Lord Mortimer. There seemed to be so much at stake whenever Hotspur was on stage. He possesses a contagious energy and significant threat to the recently-usurped crown that’s quite absent in the second play. The quick-witted scenes between him and his wife, Lady Percy, were some of my favourite in the play. Sadly, she only appears in one scene in part two.
By Henry IV part two, the King is in ill-health and the focus is very much on Hal’s journey to the crown. The strongest moment was certainly Henry IV’s deathbed scene, a moment of the utmost seriousness in surroundings padded with humour.
I liked the portrayal of the Prince’s friendship with Poins throughout both plays and am very interested to see how this is played out in other adaptations. Unlike part one, Hal has hardly any scenes with Falstaff and ultimately rejects him upon becoming king. The storyline of part two felt a little disconnected and I was glad to revert to stronger historical roots when it was time for Henry V.
“The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!”
By the time of the fourth and final play of the cycle, it was possible to recognise familiar faces that had appeared as various different characters throughout all four plays. This provided a sense of continuity and kept you fully emerged in the story. The supporting cast were excellent, and brought to life the world around the main players. I also thought the battle scenes of Agincourt were very well done, creating the right amount of tension and chaos, when only a handful of actors were on stage at a time.
For all that the plays are very much focused on men, war, and kingship, it was the female characters in Henry V that I thought were particularly brilliant. The scene where Princess Catherine of France is given an English lesson by her lady-in-waiting was a very funny interlude and perfect change of tone.
Since returning home from my trip I’ve read Richard II and Henry IV part one, and nearly finished part two. I’m looking forward to reading Henry V and then watching the BBC’s adaptation of the three Henry plays as part of the Hollow Crown. It’ll be very interesting to compare them with my live experience of the plays.
I loved the Cycle of Kings. It was a fantastic opportunity of seeing Shakespeare’s works performed by the very best, and has made reading the plays themselves really enjoyable. I feel the history plays are often overlooked in the world of the Bard. I really recommend that you give them a chance, particularly Richard II if you love Hamlet, or Henry IV part one if you prefer the comedies.