The performance tonight is best summarised through a description of notable performances. Antony Sher’s presentation of Falstaff maintained its solid brilliance, as did – though to a lesser extent, given the character’s development and maturity in Part Two of Henry IV – Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal/Henry V. This core was augmented by other roles, especially that of Justices Shallow (Oliver Ford-Davies) and Silence (Jim Hooper). Antony Byrne’s unstable and pyrotechnic Pistol gave a wild edge to the comic scenes. Byrne also played an unnerving, Rolling Stones T-shirted Rumour, who opened the play by taking a selfie of himself and the audience, before the backdrop filled with texts of ‘rumour’, supported by the sound of a multilingual chorus repeating the word.
These comedic figures deserve a longer mention. Part Two of this play is usually considered to be inferior to Part One, because of Hal’s assumption of greater royal responsibility, and the downbeat mood produced by the focus on old age. However, the actors playing Shallow, Silence, Pistol, and of course Falstaff, delivered the humour with a skill that set the audience laughing innumerable times. The scene with the ragged band of potential but unpromising soldiers Mouldy, Shadow, Feeble, and Wart (played with stooping greatness by Leigh Quinn), was an ancillary success. Overall, Part Two is, for a significant section of its length, an extremely funny play.
Yet humour was by no means all this production had to offer. The fierce harlot, Doll Tearsheet, played by Nia Gwynne, while capable of comedy, achieved a heartrending moment when, after saying farewell to Falstaff who is going off to fight, she breaks down in tears. Simultaneously, yet unaware of Doll’s weeping, Falstaff, that comic giant, crumbles too. After her kisses, given ‘with a most constant heart’, and her lines about how she loves him ‘better than I love e’er a scurvy young boy of them all’, this spectacle would reduce anyone to tears.
The theme of mortality does run constantly throughout this play, with Shallow’s longing for his (somewhat braggingly related) young days, and Falstaff’s final realisation that he has heard ‘the chimes of midnight’. This is in contrast to the start of the play, where, in verbal combat with the Lord Chief Justice, Falstaff speaks of himself as among ‘us that are young’. Jasper Britton’s Henry IV, with his dying speeches on how ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, is also moving.
Especially worthy of comment are the performances of Luca Saraceni-Gunner, as the young page given to Falstaff by Hal (affectingly left isolated on the stage at the end as the lights dimmed); Leigh Quinn’s Duke of Gloucester; and Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Davy, Feeble, and Hastings, and the versatility shown by him in the delivery of these different parts.
The final scene, however, with Hal’s ‘I know thee not, old man’, perhaps illustrates why this play is sadder than Henry IV Part One. His forsaking of Falstaff, and the arrest of his dissolute companions, combined with the fact that Doll is in prison and is most likely, even if she does exaggerate it using a cushion, pregnant, has to deserve a place in the list of the most melancholy moments in literature and theatre. The lead-up to this fall, however, peppered with the merriment and the idyllic setting of Shallow’s estate, probably explains the affection felt for this play by the theatregoers tonight. That, coupled with the chiaroscuro provided by its combination with the heavier moments, is perhaps what made many stand up as they gave their long applause.