Year of Shakespeare: Henry IV – Part 2 on the BBCHistoryTelevisionYear of Shakespeare

  • Will Sharpe

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Henry IV – Part 2, dir. Richard Eyre, 14 July 2012 on BBC 2

By Will Sharpe

We begin, again, in the tavern – this production’s spiritual home – following a urine sample up the stairs to Falstaff’s room. After Part 1’s somatic creakings I more than expected to find within a wart-nosed cane wielder grimly awaiting the lowered thumb, but instead we get a spruce knight in red velvet, gloved hands either hugging the seat of benevolence or darting eagerly at the air. Beale, finally allowed off the leash, purrs the lines with quick invention and mischief, making it harder to fathom why the chance was so sniffed at in the more yielding Part 1 – humour exists in this play, but Shakespeare makes us grub in the dirt for its filthy lessons. In fact, the whole world has got the colour back in its cheeks. Jeremy Irons’ Henry, last seen reaching for the handle of death’s door, looks as though there’s nothing that half a Valium and an unbroken nine hours wouldn’t cure. While not his fault – throughout we get the sense of a dignified, powerful performer at the mercy of a series of directorial whims – it must be observed that he, indeed everyone, seems better. Maybe it was inversion by design, or maybe a realisation that signs of life would have to be put back if the entire cast was not to expire before Act 2.

Eyre has made resolute provision for the defence of the fourth wall in his adaptation as a whole, and there are still no soliloquies here – even Henry’s insomnia and Hal’s bedside grapplings with crown and destiny move from private to public. In practice this requires a good deal of strained reworking, some of the more evasive tactics (using voice-over or cutting outright) having been discussed in the last review. Falstaff’s great solo set-piece from Part 2 about sherry drinking was crowbarred in as dialogue to mollify a rather morose ‘do I not dwindle’ episode in Part 1, which in hindsight may have been to ensure that the much-loved lines were at least retained, realising there was no way for Part 2 to support them unless Beale – horror of horrors – talked to the camera. Throughout, there is a sense of helpless surrender to the ennobling grammar of celluloid, though why the fear of direct eye contact? One senses a conviction that it would wound the essential dignity of the project as a whole – we are here, first and foremost, to tell sad stories of the death of kings – yet such po-facedness strips proceedings of the very wits Shakespeare took such care to season them with.

Henry IV Part 2 is a play in which, fundamentally, nothing happens, and it is useless to try to thrash it into service as a pulse raiser. We must bed down in its mulchy topsoil, plug in to the circadian rhythms of Shallow’s orchard and slowly photosynthesise, like one of his apple trees, in a zen-like acceptance of inertia. These are not shortcomings. There is something frankly haunting about the burden of memory allied to the generosity with which quotidian experience is handled – delicate, complex layers of regret and understanding that seem, at their most closely observed, beyond this production’s grasp. The ‘chimes at midnight’ scene is horribly rushed, the line itself knowingly portentous (Falstaff eyes the abyss and David Bamber’s Shallow whines tearfully). It’s a moment of unnecessary panic, lunging clumsily at pathos, more so as it goes unchecked by Falstaff’s – soliloquised – account of the old man’s simian lechery.

Gloucestershire – inexplicably wintry in this production – is all well and good, but the film really wants to get back to London, to the lonely watches of Irons’ palace and the Turkish baths in which Hiddleston’s Hal and David Dawson’s Poins now fritter away the time. The principal debt to the interior designs goes to Caravaggio, with lots of bodies in dark rooms lit from the side, though he never painted flesh without making it suffer. Here the director turns travel agent, offering us poolside vanities – Poins artfully flexing his pectoral muscles into optimal relief – in a scene that ought to demand squalid impatience, frustration, thwarted ambition. The levelling of complexity hinted at earlier is probably as true of the darknesses as the delicacies. After a tearful embrace at which Irons rears up for an open-mouthed, frog-eyed fatal seizure, we see him laid out in state, Hal crowned, Falstaff duly rejected and a final lingering shot of Beale’s face. Yet there is no bird that sings of the wars to come, no steely realpolitik advice from father to son about busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels, no admitting that he will die having failed to make his penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The whole thing has the uncomfortable air of censorship about it; the cynicism of motive that is so artfully concealed in Henry V is here, for the only time, allowed unambiguous voice, and its suppression is miscalculated.

That I actually rather enjoyed this film as a whole might seem like a bizarre parting shot given the ravings of this review. It is certainly the play that best serves the overall moodiness of The Hollow Crown series, and, to end where I began, if the tavern is where we are most at home, it is where this production’s greatest glories are to be found. I take back what I said about Julie Walters’ Quickly. She is magnificent in Part 2, an unsentimental life raft for the souls not waving but drowning around her, and Maxine Peake’s Doll is, and may continue to be, the best reading of the role I have seen. In a moment that at first had me rolling my eyes, she straddles Falstaff and tries to stir him manually into life; yet we see, with honest poignancy, desire outliving performance in his apologetic admission ‘I am old, Doll’. She dismounts unceremoniously and lies near him in patient forgiveness, in bounteous understanding, and in love. The sense of fragility conveyed, that a breath might wither all, renders it worthy of entry into the pantheon of great interpretations of this play.


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Author: Will Sharpe

Will Sharpe is one of the General Editors of Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others (RSC/Palgrave, 2013), as well as a Chief Associate Editor of the RSC Shakespeare individual volumes series, for which he co-edited Cymbeline with Jonathan Bate. He is one of the General Editors of Digital Renaissance Editions, and has taught at the University of Warwick, Nottingham Trent University and The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, where he is Visiting Lecturer.