Ah, the Roundhouse! In its early theatrical heyday I went there in the 70s and 80s to see Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789! and the Rustaveli Theatre from Georgia. I even recall some kind of radical media conference in about 1972 when the platform was stormed by a posse of feminists in dungarees. In 2002 I went to see the last RSC season there, which was excellent despite the company's financial implosion. We saw The Tempest, Adrian Noble's Middle Eastern Pericles and an extraordinary Winter's Tale directed by Matthew Warchus and set in America, with Virginia hillbillies and Douglas Hodge playing Leontes with a sharp Noo York accent. Since then the place has had several million pounds spent on it and is, not surprisingly, much better equipped and less scruffy. Most of the time it's now a rock venue. But the essential circular space of the engine shed is exactly the same, and perfect for theatre. Since it reopened I've been there just once, to see Tim Supple's extraordinary Indian Midsummer Night's Dream in 2007. My only doubts about that show concerned the acoustics, because not all of it was audible. I've been wondering whether the current season by the RSC, in which artistic director Michael Boyd is putting on all Shakespeare's history plays over a two-month period, would be affected by the same problem. Well, the good news is that the acoustics seem fine, and the RSC season has got off to a flying start. The Roundhouse has been transformed with a terrific thrust stage that gives every member of the audience a great view. At the back, there's a rusty metal spiral staircase with curved double doors in the centre at the bottom, rather like the doors to the 'tiring house' at Shakespeare's Globe. Above the stage there's a complicated structure that allows the actors to abseil down ropes and climb down ladders, and even to descend at high speed in an iron cradle, so that the play becomes truly three-dimensional. Boyd's History season is a high-intensity enterprise for the actors, all of whom are playing several parts, but it's a pity that the RSC won't be around in London for longer and that so few people will get to see work of this quality. Since they abandoned their six-month seasons at the Barbican Arts Centre there's been a 'blink and you miss it' quality about the RSC's visits to the capital, and their peripatetic status has probably cost them the loyalty of a lot of their core audience. But on the plus side, the Roundhouse as currently configured is a far better theatrical space than the Barbican.
Michael Boyd has given his assistant director Richard Twyman prime responsibility for the second part of Henry IV, but the two plays form a seamless whole. If anything, I preferred Twyman's part two because I felt it had less intrusive plinking and plonking by the musicians, and possibly because it's just a better play. David Warner is a magnificent Falstaff, like a gone-to-seed Father Christmas twirling his stick and his sword, and Clive Wood is an excellent and thuggish Henry IV. This Henry is a usurper, a bad baron rather than a real king. In the opening scenes Wood, rather than remaining seated on a grand throne, swaps seats with his barons and fingers his crown nervously. His status is deliberately pitched at the same level as the barons who will try to overthrow him. The highlight of the acting comes from Geoffrey Streatfeild as Prince Hal, who hits just the right notes. His transition from tavern barfly to military hero is beautifully played and his repudiation of Falstaff at the end of part two suggests hesitation and uncertainty hiding under a decisive exterior. Rather than sounding cruel and abrupt, the newly crowned Henry V seems a little ashamed to be casting Falstaff off with such cruelty; when Falstaff blusters to Shallow that the king's public words don't reflect his private feelings, we feel he might just be right. I've been watching Streatfeild's career since I first saw him on stage as a gifted teenage actor in the 1990s at Sevenoaks School, where it was clear that he was destined for a career in the theatre. A couple of years later I caught a student production of As You Like It which he directed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and more recently I saw him as Captain Stanhope in the highly successful West End revival of Journey's End. It's a pity that if the Olivier awards panel sticks by the rules, neither his performance nor any of the others in the RSC season will be eligible for gongs in 2008. (The rules say plays have to be performed 30 times in London to be considered.)
The costumes for Henry IV are by Emma Williams. Half the cast, including most of the powerbrokers, are clad in black and white and the other half, the low-lifes, are in colour. There's a feeling of cavaliers and roundheads which fits the play quite well. But I was left puzzled and irritated by the arbitrary lurches between mediaeval, Jacobethan and later periods. I'm quite happy to have my Shakespeare served up in mediaeval armour, in Elizabethan doublet and hose, or in 21st century suits or camouflage, but I like directors and designers to make their choice and stick to it.