I went to the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury at the weekend; my first visit inside the city’s new theatre. There has long been a Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – I first went there in the early 1970s to see an Agatha Christie play, when the theatre was on St Margaret’s Street. Then it was rebuilt over the shell of a former cinema just off the High Street, an ugly grain silo of a building that spoiled the general view. On the same site a new Marlowe was then built with is something of an architectural and landscaping triumph, a theatre big enough and stylish enough to attract the most profitable touring shows, yet tucked away in almost intimate fashion within the medieval curves of the city’s roads. Aside from an awkward tower that looks like a misjudged after-thought, it is beautiful to behold, and boasts marvellous views across the roofs of Canterbury.
Inside the theatre is well-appointed, comfortable (leg room even for one such as I), and has notably fine acoustics. And it was there that I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring productions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two. They were two good productions, all in all. Antony Sher’s Falstaff was the main calling card, and he delighted the audience from the very outset and never let them go. There was a memorable Shallow from Oliver Ford Davies, as earthy as he was wistful. There was some curiously static direction in places, with assorted lords and dukes standing stock still and declaiming at one another, which reminded me of Shakespeare productions of another age. But, all in all, good.
The two plays were put on over the same day, which led to the odd situation of the better-known (and better) play, Henry IV part 1, being put on in the afternoon to a three-quarters-full theatre (many clearly not wanting to see two plays in one day and not wanting to go to the theatre in the afternoon), while the lesser-known (and lesser) Henry IV part 2 played a full theatre, many of whom were watching the sequel with maybe not much sense of what it was a sequel to.
Because Henry IV part 2 is very much sequel, produced to order much like so many Hollywood titles that mechanically revisit a familiar formula. It has the intercutting between highlife scenes at the court and lowlife scenes at the tavern; it has the rebellion against the crown which is thwarted; it has Hal and Poins is disguise to play tricks on Falstaff; it has Falstaff going to the wars and making a mockery of the process – all familiar from Part One and recycled for an audience that would pay to see more of the same. What they most wanted to see was Falstaff being himself, and that they were given amply. The play exists to let Falstaff exist, and narrative, theme and history are all sacrificed for the grand comic turn.
Of course Henry IV part two does have its great sequences (the conversation at Shallow’s house, Henry berating his son for trying on the crown while the king was on his deathbed) and some magnificent lines. It tries to have a great theme, with the meditations on death expressed by both Falstaff and Henry that ought to interlink.
But none of it hangs together. Part 1 works ingeniously as a counterpointing narrative about power, duty, conscience and character. Every scene, every act, every character is tellingly played off against the others to rich and profound effect. Part 2 has none of this; its individual elements never cohere. It doesn’t function as drama. The wonder is that Shakespeare put such effort into it (you can’t just throw together a five act history play overnight), yet came up with so little that worked. The dukes and lords argue amongst one another, yet they are interchangeable, and without interest. The tavern folk demonstrate their rumbustiousness, but merely create directionless noise (the RSC production had a particularly annoying Pistol). My Oxford Companion to Shakespeare tells me that the play’s sub-plot is “exquisitely funny”. Which just goes to show that you should never try to share a joke with a Shakespearian. Well, some Shakespearians.
So I’m intrigued by the picture of William Shakespeare toiling away at something the market demanded, but which his heart did not. There were many felicities that he incorporated (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”, “That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have”) but they are not enough to make a play of it. You write because you can write. You create where you have discovered something new. Some sequels extend an idea through fresh narrative, but most merely bow to the demand for more of what made the original a hit. They are the antithesis of discovery. They merely echo that which has gone before. They are the particular vice of our dramatic age, where films become franchises tied to rigid formulae, because we want the security of seeing more of the same. It was much the same back in 1598.
Poor Shakespeare. He wrote because he had to write, for good or ill.