Ten things I loved about the RSC's King and Country cycle
Some bits and bobs from the RSC's Richard II Q&A with David Tennant and Jonathan Slinger

Review: RSC's King and Country cycle - Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Barbican

Antony Sher and Alex Hassell in the original Stratford production of Henry IV

Saw this production of the RSC's Henry IV parts 1 and 2 back to back on its first visit to the Barbican in 2014. It isn't exactly the same cast and while it is great to have the opportunity to revisit it, the thrill this time was seeing it as part of the King and Country cycle.

David Tennant's Richard II superbly set the scene on Tuesday night with Jasper Britton who played Henry IV taking on Bolingbroke. He said in a Q&A afterwards that playing Bolingbroke changed his performance as Henry and it is this continuity of casting that really brought something extra to the two plays.

At the end of Richard II, Bolingbroke is riding high as the new king. I've seen Bolingbroke played as a reluctant King but not here and yet Richard's murder has already started to haunt him. At the opening of Henry IV, there is unrest in the country and he looks care worn. He is still a powerful leader and expert politician but the reality of kingship and consequence of how he came by the thrown is settling in. 

His disappointment with his son, the party Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) is magnified having seen how Harry 'Hotspur' Percy' (Matthew Needham) conducted himself during his rise. Incidentally I preferred Matthew's Hotspur to Trevor White who played the part in the original production as I found him just a little too fiery to the point of occasionally being irritating.

Henry IV is also the start of a big journey for Prince Hal and like Jasper Britton it was interesting to see his journey, which completes in Henry V, which I'll review separately.

Like Richard II there was a renewed energy in the performance, for part 1 at least. Antony Sher is still a joy to watch as Falstaff but the company is strong enough to ensure it isn't just his show. Part 2, seen as a matinee, didn't quite have quite the same energy but then I don't think it is quite as rounded and satisfying a play as part 2. The comic scenes sometimes feel too contrived as audience-pleasers rather than having a dual purpose of helping developing plot and character, which isn't necessarily a criticism but of the four plays in the cycle it's the one you could ditch without any real danger to the storyline. (The Donmar did a great production in which they combined the two parts into one play.)

Knowing that Henry V was coming up that evening, the final scene between dying father and son to whom he is passing on the burden of the crown had extra poignancy.

Aside from casting there were some lovely little performance touches that carried through. When Richard gets Bolingbroke to seize one side of the crown  while he holds the other in Richard II it is a gesture that is repeated twice in the Henry's and is particularly pertinent when Falstaff is pretending to play the King.

Henry IV parts 1 and 2 ably carried the baton in the series and were a pleasure to watch all over again, I'm giving them an aggregate of 4 stars.

You can catch the plays in rep at the Barbican until Jan 23 before the cycle heads off on a world tour.