Review: Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & I, Henry V

By John Nathan, April 24, 2008


Roundhouse, London NW1

For those who grab this rare chance to see all of Shakespeare’s history plays in chronological order, the three-week gap between the first and second half of the RSC’s eight-play marathon will come as an unwelcome distraction.

That the audience’s sigh at the end of the first four plays was more out of satisfaction than exhaustion says a lot about how the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd looks for, and regularly finds, exhilarating coups in his staging. His productions — its kings and its battles — stalk the Roundhouse’s stage, spilling into and out of the stalls. If there is a theme to his production it is suspense, in both senses of the word.

The standard is set with Jonathan Slinger’s heavily made-up Richard II — almost a drag-queen king, his mouth a lipsticked rictus — who intercedes when Clive Wood’s bruiser Bolingbroke and John Mackay’s Mowbray almost collide in a heart-stopping joust.

Three plays later, in Henry V, the dandified French aristocracy laze arrogantly in suspended trapezes before Geoffrey Streatfield’s boyish Hal lays waste to their knights at Agincourt.

There is no obvious attempt here to highlight the relevance of these history plays to modern times. But when Hal declares the casualties — 10,000 French and less than 30 English — the statistics, and sense of shame, chimed with the recently announced Taliban and British casualties in Afghanistan.

The star performance is undoubtedly David Warner’s Falstaff, imbued with just enough malice to justify Hal’s cruel rejection. The next instalment — the three parts of Henry VI followed by Slinger’s Richard III — cannot come soon enough.

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Last updated: 11:57am, May 20 2008