Rumour (Antony Byrne), a force responsible for “Stuffing the ears of men with false reports,” enters to address the audience. He means to “noise abroad that Harry Monmouth fell / Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword.” Typically “painted full of tongues,” this Rumour bears a t-shirt with Rolling Stones logo, a clever if somewhat irrelevant touch. Henry IV, Part 2 is a sequel, and this prologue is meant to catch us up on the action. But it is a little misleading; though Hotspur’s father, Northumberland (Sean Chapman), will be briefly deceived about the fate of his son, he soon learns the truth. Unlike Part 1, this is not a play about youth and battles but about politics, death, and princely ascension.
Appropriately, then, the production is muted in comparison to its precursor. Take, for example, the scene of playing, with Hal (Alex Hassell) and Poins (Sam Marks) disguising themselves as serving-men in order to overhear Falstaff (Antony Sher) dining with Mistress Quickly (Sarah Parks) and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Emma King). This clearly parallels the prank in Part 1, in which the Prince robs Falstaff while in disguise, leading to his telling an elaborate lie about battling first two, then four, then seven, and finally “eleven buckram men.” Here they play a more passive part, listening as he insults them, and the tone is markedly less boisterous, with the two actors spending most of their time behind a screen. The scene closes with Quickly and Tearsheet falling asleep after Falstaff has left for war, and an insomniac King Henry (Jasper Britton) walks onstage to muse, “How many thousands of my poorest subjects / Are at this hour asleep! O sleep! … thou no more wilt weight my eyelids down / And steep my senses in forgetfulness?” This is a smartly-staged juxtaposition, marking the difference between the unencumbered world of misrule, which Hal will be forced to leave, and the sober world of kingly concerns, which he will soon be entering.
Though Mr. Sher is terrific as ever, his Falstaff seems to be cashing in on those years of hedonism. In this context of this enervation, his dishonesty seems more pathetic than charming, his swindling for money more desperate than roguish. In the devastating final scene, Hal fulfills his promise that he will banish old Jack Falstaff, telling his former father figure (who has been usurped by the stern Lord Chief Justice), “I know thee not, old man … I have long dream’d of such a kind of man, / So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane; / But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.” It is heartbreaking but somehow correct: Falstaff indeed no longer belongs.
This RSC production of The Henriad, which will conclude with Henry V, has been a godsend for Brooklynite Bardolators, and Henry IV, Part 2 proves a particular treat. Its awkward position as a sequel means it is rarely performed and, when it is, as a conflated double-feature with Part 1. The opportunity to see the nearly-complete version should not be missed.