As you might expect after reading my Henry IV, part one write-up, this is another play I only saw onstage for the first time during last year’s Globe Henriad (there subtitled Falstaff). I must admit that this was a bit of a dip in the trilogy day – not bad, by any means (and a wonderful performance from Helen Schlesinger), but on the whole a not especially memorable play. By now, however, I know that if anybody can change my perception of a play it’s The Show Must Go Online.
Introducing this play was freelance director and radio producer Jeremy Mortimer, who has also been assisting the TSMGO team with cutting down the texts when necessary. He acknowledges that Henry IV, part two is “often overlooked”, and tends to be minimised, on the occasions that Henry IV is performed as a single play; he is clearly keen to support it though, claiming that in its content it is “turning the history play on its head”. As ever, no need to recall dates & battles, but useful to think back to Richard II, as this is where the seeds for this story are sewn. Despite the fact that Hal had seemed to make a marked improvement in his character by the end of part one, “where there are big egos in the room, nothing is ever so simple”. He is back in Eastcheap, and the royal father & son don’t even show their faces until a bit later on in the play – instead Shakespeare deploys allegorical characters, further “democratising the notion of history”, and causing a bit of mischief. At times it feels like it could end up as a revenge tragedy, at others there’s more of a feel of the return of the prodigal son; there’s an “autumnal feel” and the knowledge that “the carnival cannot go on forever”.
The play picks up directly from where it left off in part one; the Earl of Northumberland is briefly given hope that Hotspur defeated Hal (rather than the other way round), though this is soon debunked and he is forced to face the loss of his son. Falstaff, as one would expect, remains completely unchanged following his brief foray into battle – he is now keeping the company of a young page more often than Hal, and also gets involved with prostitute Doll Tearsheet. On a rowdy evening with her and some of his followers, he makes some derogatory remarks about Hal, without realising he is there in disguise – this is potentially a wake-up call for the prince, especially with his father’s health on the wane. Another rebellion begins, and Falstaff heads off to the country to recruit but ends up distracted by an old friend (Justice Shallow), as they indulge in nostalgia for their school days. Hal, meanwhile, is grappling with the link between his father’s mortality and his own destiny – it appears he still has some convincing to do…
In his introduction, Jeremy Mortimer suggested we look out for the insults – and you know by now that something like this is right up my street! It is a particularly insult-laden play, and Doll Tearsheet does a lot of the heavy-lifting here, going to town on Ancient Pistol in Act 2 scene 4: “Away, you mouldy rogue”, “cut-purse rascal”, and many more. Completely in line with expectations, Falstaff is more than capable of bad-mouthing people too, saying that Poins’ wit is “as thick as Tewkesbury mustard”, and no doubt it’s his influence that leads his page to shout at Mistress Quickly “Away, you scullion, you rampallian, you fustilarian!” Hal, too, has learnt from his wayward companion, labelling Falstaff a “fat villain”. Some of these are definitely phrases I’ll be storing up for later use.
Just when you think The Show Must Go Online might have hit the innovation ceiling, they throw in a truly mind-blowing beginning; Rumour hacked into the broadcast, spreading fake news (including a reimagined fight sequence between Hotspur & Hal) and creating a really memorable sequence – don’t think anyone’s pretending these are readings anymore, they are incredibly well thought out and frequently very stylish productions.
I’m glad that Stephen Leask got the call to return to the TSMGO fold as Falstaff, following hilarious turns as Chewbacca in the Pop Shakespeare Star Wars and Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost. He took full advantage of all the comic potential of the “fat knight” – and again made good use of his spare mattress as an unwieldy set – plus he worked brilliantly with Elizabeth Lancaster as Shallow, a touch of pathos as well as pure joy in their combination. Leask was also on fine form alongside Blioux Kirkby as the foul-mouthed Doll Tearsheet.
Elizabeth Dennehy and Tanvi Virmani were exceptional as the dying Henry IV and Henry V-in-waiting; it was interesting to move from a male to a female pairing between parts one & two – just one way of showing the continuing arc for each Henry, and bring out different sides of both characters.
Another unmitigated success for The Show Must Go Online, proving once again that they are as adept at presenting the histories as they are at the rest of the Bard’s canon. For anyone who previously might have considered them a bit dry or lacking in drama – think again.
Next week: Much Ado About Nothing
Henry IV, part two was broadcast on 8 July 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.