While Monday’s Mexican production of Henry IV Part One took a straightforward approach to the historical play, and succeeded, Elkafka Espacio Teatral played with the setting a bit more. The result was hit and miss, but the hits were very interesting, and many of the misses were down to the simple fact that Henry IV, Part Two is a patchier play than Henry IV, Part One.
Part of the dramaturgical problem with Part Two is that we’ve seen it all before, in the previous play: Falstaff aggrandizing himself between begging for money, Hal and Poins playing a trick on him at the Boar’s Head, a rebellion due to Henry IV’s shaky claim to the throne, Henry summoning his son to Westminster to tell him off for screwing around in pubs.
There are some key differences, however, which the direction picked up on to good effect. There is no energetic character like Hotspur driving the action; the rebels are more self-doubting and sophisticated. There is no grand comic figure like Owen Glendower; the new additions are the nostalgic, slow-paced country justices Shallow and Silence, and the Boar’s Head denizens Doll Tearsheet and Pistol. Pistol has something of Hotspur’s fierce energy, but he’s a less solid character, and less important (read: not onstage as much). Hal could be excused for wasting his time in the pub in Part One, but we’ve already seen his (apparently sincere) promise to reform at the end of that play, so coming back Part Two to find him lounging in the Boar’s Head again is a bit depressing.
The result is a slower, more grown-up play. The scenes in the pub are less essential. Rather than Hal and Falstaff sparring about the nature of kingship and life, there are prostitutes bickering with johns, slow music and dancing, and an edge of exhaustion – Falstaff complains about being old and tired, which he never does (and would never do) in Part One. In the country, Shallow and Silence are relaxed and lyrical as they reminisce about their university days (typing this up now, I’ve just realised what a large proportion of the characters spend most of the play drunk). It’s less manic, but it’s more complex.
Elkafka Espacio Teatral’s costumes suggest the 1980s, when Argentina was transitioning from junta rule to relatively free democratic elections. However, the arc of their Henry IV, Part Two implies a move in the other direction.
In my favourite scene in the play, John of Lancaster, Hal’s younger brother, effectively but underhandedly suppresses a somewhat justified rebellion. He arrives to negotiate, and the rebels hand him a list of their grievances. Lancaster takes a look, says, “actually, these are all really good points, you’re right – I’ll sort these out, and meanwhile let’s both send away our armies now that we’ve made peace.” The rebels happily agree, and Lancaster immediately arrests them and takes them away to be executed, pointing out that although he’s definitely going to address the issues they raised, he never said anything about not killing anyone. It’s a delightfully chilling real-life taste of the deeply cynical approach to politics his father and brother avow.
As Lancaster, Julian Vilar wore a dark khaki general’s coat and red beret, evoking junta rule. (The rebel leader Archbishop of York [Ruben Szuchmacher] had a camouflage mitre, which was just delightful.) He wore this throughout, even to his father’s bedside and brother’s coronation. Hal wore knee boots even after becoming king, another intimidating military touch.
For the play’s final lines, Lancaster and the royalist Lord Chief Justice linger onstage after the new King Henry V’s coronation procession. Lancaster suggests his brother is likely to make an expedition to France soon – just after the audience has just heard a dying Henry IV advise his eldest son to “busy giddy minds with foreign broils” to keep down rebellions – and the play usually ends here, a little teaser for the blockbuster Henry V. Not in this production: during the lords’ brief conversation the rest of the cast has done a quick change into trench coats and dark sunglasses, and marches out in an arrowhead with a military drum and Henry at the front, miming shooting the audience. It was a great choice and a great, unsettling aspect of the play to bring out.
I saw Globe to Globe’ Henry IV, Part Two at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 15, 2012.