What do you do if you’re a successful playwright at the top of your game and you have some good will to burn off? You experiment! Henry IV Part 2 is Shakespeare taking the thematic elements of Part 1 and deconstructing them like a madman. In the place of the riotously funny Tavern Scene in Part 1 where Falstaff makes up hilarious and fantastical stories and engages in a brilliant improv session with Prince Hal, we get the creepy and unfunny Part 2 Tavern Scene, where Prince Hal and his boon companion Ned Poins disguise themselves so they can secretly watch Falstaff talk about death with his favorite prostitute. The fiery rebels of Part 1 drive the plot along, but the cool, colorless (and frankly not very bright) rebels of Part 2 recede into the background, and the play’s climax is built around…a really long death scene followed by a scene where the Prince publicly and cruelly humiliates Falstaff in front a large crowd. So it appears that Falstaff takes Hotspur’s place as the antagonist, and while Hotspur is defeated in thrilling combat laden with great dialogue, Falstaff is defeated by a public display of virtue. Not quite the same effect.
The Argo recording transmits the play in all its contrary nature. Cambridge don and amateur actor Donald Beves gets the gigantic role of Falstaff and delivers a spirited performance, true to the text, but he is oddly unlikable. Perhaps it’s because this role is usually cast with a star character player adept at comedy, and Beves’ amateur background just doesn’t give him the timing and charisma necessary to pull off a Falstaff both true and funny – or maybe in the end, truth is all that’s necessary. Despite the great speeches and zippy one-liners, Falstaff is, after all, a really bad man. And it’s funny, in the other sense of the word, how obvious Sir John’s badness is when his charm is dampened.
Anthony Jacobs is a fine Henry IV until, for some reason, he forgets that he’s sick, tired and dying and begins Act IV Scene 4 with impossible vigor. A pity, because his performance of III:1 is superb, painting a sympathetic portrait of a crafty and duplicitous politician grown peevish in old age, desperately hugging the delusion that he’s been a straight-shooter.
Gary Watson continues his excellent Hal, maintaining a reservoir of likability amid the schematic detachment of his dogged premeditation and his snobbish treatment of Poins; He is joined by Corin Redgrave racing quickly through his lines as the priggish and rather nasty Prince John of Lancaster. It’s hard to get excited about the new administration.
Worthy of note is William Squire’s excellent Justice Shallow, oscillating beautifully between the dead serious business of running his estate and groveling almost tunefully before Falstaff, whom he imagines will get him some advantage as a friend of the Prince. His scene with Toby Robertson as Silence as they play catch up is so deadpan it could be something out of theatre of the absurd. Not funny, but oddly fascinating.
And finally, best performance on the recording is Vivienne Chatterton’s chatty, sweetly obtuse Mistress Quickly, a paragon of nonlinear garrulity.
Henry IV Part 2 with Anthony Jacobs, Donald Beves, Gary Watson, Corin Redgrave, William Squire, Toby Robertson and Vivienne Chatterton