Such is the traditional, ungimmicky nature of Greg Doran’s productions that it is quite a shock when “Rumour”, the abstract character who introduces the second part of the Henry-Hal-Falstaff saga, comes on in a pop art red-mouth T-shirt in front of a flashing projection of social media gabble. It wakes us up, though, and is only a fleeting moment before the centuries roll us back into the tale. Having seen Part I, we know how much is rumour and how much truth: that Hotspur is dead, the first battle won but the rebels still angry, and that a slight souring has crossed the relationship between Prince Hal and Antony Sher’s Falstaff (who has by now scored a feather in his awful hat and a cheeky, adorable tiny page).
This play gives more space for the tavern characters to grow, and to find their own melancholy. Paola Dionisotti as Quickly is a victim of Falstaff’s debts and lies, still fiery but less certain; the fat knight himself is more often obstreperous than amusing, Bardolph remains glumly, beautifully resigned and Pistol (Antony Byrne) is plain barking mad, with a hairstyle that can only be described as deshabillé Jedward.
But what Greg Doran finds in this second part is a sense of inexorable change: old Henry is dying, Hal’s return to the tavern set is sourer, more bent on teasing Falstaff than enjoying him. Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) has an unhappy anger about her. There are moments of great fun, not least Pistol’s crazy chandelier-swinging and trouserwork, but decline and death haunt them all. Falstaff’s “Do not bid me remember mine end” to Doll is amplified later in a peculiarly touching rendering of his scene with the old men Shallow and Silence, set before a hay-cart which reminds you of the simple, suffering rural England across which battle has raged. The limping, shuffling peasant soldiers they recruit are treated with more pathos than humour (congratulations to Leigh Quinn as Wart, bent double: that’s a memorable RSC debut and I hope the physio looks after her).
So the serious Matter of England presses hard, beyond the foreground concerns of warlike nobles and tavern revellers. And so does the gradual, inexorable advance of death on all: when the old men giggle about “Jane Nightwork” a former tart of fifty years ago, the shocked realization in the line “She’s old..she cannot help but be old..” hits home with rare force. “We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow..”
This has never been my favourite of the two parts, and if I were forced to ask which one to book, the first would win. But if you can do both, to see the story out is a great thing, the cross-currents richly rewarding. Jasper Britton makes Henry’s approach to death deeply moving and involving , and Alex Hassell’s self-reinvention as a responsible prince is well taken. Because in a characteristically young-male adolescent switch, the thoughtless irresponsibility of his past becomes an equally thoughtless, posed frigidity as he delivers that most famous snub in literature: “I know thee not, old man”.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 6 September
Part 3 in participating cinemas 18 June (see below for Pt 1)