Falstaff, like Sherlock Holmes, is one of those characters who are so memorable they almost seem alive. He is at the center of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s magnificent Henry IV Part 1, and his bombastic charm vaults the play into the realm of Shakespeare’s finest. It is a privilege to see Stacy Keach in the role. His authority as an actor informs every aspect of his performance, from the humor to the lies to the brief flashes of anger. His achievement, and it is naturally an exceptional one, is to portray the many sides of Falstaff, the good and the bad, without judgment, matter-of-factly, with the grace of a dancer and the earthy wisdom of a well-beloved sage. Great acting and great writing combine to make this a Falstaff worth seeing again and again.
Henry IV, Part 1 is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It begins with the aftermath of a murder. The killing of Richard II has deeply affected many of the characters, especially King Henry IV, who was responsible for it, and who took Richard’s crown. The play is “very much a three-hander,”; in fact, two-thirds of the dialogue is spoken by only three characters; Falstaff, Prince Hal, and his rival Hotspur. (Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age, Random House, 2009). Noted for its increased dependence on prose, the piece has comedy, trenchant social commentary, fascinating family and political rivalries, and, of course, Falstaff. Falstaff’s relationship with Prince Hal, King Henry’s son, who is going through a wild period of his youth, is central to the play.
W.H. Auden has said, “Falstaff, like Hamlet, is an actor living in a world of words.” Falstaff, he notes “loves Hal for his youth and power because he can’t manage his own life. He wants by charm to attach himself to Hal both as a child and as a mother.” (W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, Arthur Kirsch, ed., Princeton University Press, 2000). Liar, cheat, glutton, reprobate, drunk, lecher–there are not words enough to fully express his negative qualities; yet Falstaff is one of the greatest comic creations in English theatre.
Harold Bloom calls Falstaff “essentially a satirist turned against all power.” (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, Penguin Group (USA) 1998). In an earlier era, Samuel Johnson said his character illustrates the fact that “no man is more dangerous than he that with a will to corrupt hath the power to please.” In Stacy Keach’s blog on DC Theatre Scene about the production, Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach, he echoes this sentiment, describing Falstaff as “a friend who is great fun and one who also poses great danger.” On the other hand, as Keach notes “There is no other character in Shakespeare who so gloriously enjoys being alive as Falstaff does.”
In his bestselling book, Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt argues that one model for Falstaff was Robert Greene, a “university wit” of the time, one of Shakespeare’s rival playwrights, who specialized in aggressive language games. Greene was famous for “a life that combined drunken idleness and gluttony with energetic bursts of writing, famous too for his impecuniousness, his duplicity, his intimate knowledge of the underworld, his fleeting attempts at moral reform, and his inevitable backsliding.” (Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).
Falstaff is often perceived as one of Hal’s two fathers; he is the great rogue, while Henry IV is the distant, guilt-ridden martinet. Falstaff and Prince Hal’s intense need for one another is like a high-wire act; we are never quite sure if a fall will take place, or when. The fact that we know Hal will become King provides an added tension and drama; his goal is to be at the top, and Falstaff is far too contemptuous of authority and utterly unconventional for him to ever stay at Hal’s side once he has won the throne. The drama between youth and age is usually won by youth, because they are the future. But deep emotional attachment and loss are also present. Perhaps Hal will not often think of Falstaff. But he may dream of him and of a time in his life when things were simpler and much more fun. It is his tragedy that he has to give it up; it is Falstaff’s that he never does.
Was Falstaff a coward? Audience members must judge for themselves. In 1777, Maurice Morgann wrote a famous essay attempting to show that Falstaff was “a man of natural [c]ourage”. (Internet Shakespeare Editions (“ISE”), internetshakespeare.uvic.ca, Henry IV, Part I, Critical Reception, by Rosemary Gaby). Samuel Johnson suggested, not seriously, that he should next try to prove Iago a good man. (Gaby, ISE).
At the outset of the play, Henry IV is plagued by guilt for the murder of Richard II. He plans a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to expiate his sin. Instead, faced with rebellion and resistance, he resolves to take back control of his kingdom. He also expresses his disappointment with his son, Prince Hal, who has been whooping it up with Falstaff and other disreputable friends. He wishes Harry Percy (“Hotspur”) were his son instead, because Hotspur is such a talented soldier. In reality, Hotspur was 23 years older than Hal at the time, but Shakespeare uses him as a foil for the future Henry V.
In other ways, however, the play is “broadly true to history; it starts with the English victory over the Scots at Holmidon Hill in 1402, includes the Welsh revolt led by Owen Glendower” and ends with Prince Hal’s battle with Hotspur at Shrewsbury in 1403. (Leslie Dunton-Downer & Alan Riding, Essential Shakespeare Handbook, DK, 2004).
In his essay The Myth of Henry V, Felipe Fernando-Armesto challenges Shakespeare’s vision of Prince Hal as “a box-office hero and a romantic lead”; noting that “Henry’s kingship was tainted. His usurping dynasty had no right to the crown. His victories were triumphs of hype, stained by the blood of war crimes. His piety was remarkable, especially in zeal for burning heretics, but a saint he ain’t.” (www.bbc.co.uk). “In history,” he concludes, “myths are more powerful than facts. In the long run, they generate more effects. The course of history, if there is such a thing, depends less on what actually happens than on the falsehoods people believe.” However Christopher Allmand’s biography of Henry V details solid military, administrative and diplomatic achievements which justify the praise Prince Hal has often received for his performance as king (Christopher Allmand, Henry V, The University of California Press, 1992.)
Matthew Amendt, who plays Henry, Prince of Wales (“Prince Hal”) in the current production, says “I think we [humans] have some really profound obsession with princes and princesses, and crowns. I think they symbolize, kind of, our best selves, in some small way that is completely removed from the geopolitics of monarchy.” (For Matthew Amendt I ‘Henry IV’, his character, Prince Hal, has been longtime friend by Celia Wren, The Washington Post, 4/11/14.)
As King Henry IV, Edward Gero displays a remarkable combination of guilt, bitterness, and determination, as he attempts to hold on to the crown he won by the deposition and murder of Richard II. His reconciliation with his son is moving and somehow sad; he has paid a terrible price to be king, and he doesn’t want to admit it.
As Prince Hal, Matthew Amendt discovers a uniquely appealing, heartfelt quality which encompasses all the many moods of this complicated young man. In the beginning, despite his high spirits, he seems in some kind of deep trouble which he cannot articulate, despite his wit and charm. As he grows throughout the play, his love for his father and his respect for Hotspur bring out all his strengths. When he takes on the responsibilities of the Prince of Wales, and becomes a leader, he has gone to a place where Falstaff cannot follow. Yet Falstaff’s extraordinary mind and gift for language remain supreme.
John Keabler’s Hotspur is a miracle of energy, recklessness, and uncomfortable honesty. He is at first utterly unable to control his feelings, especially his anger. In battle he discovers himself, channels his abilities, and becomes a warrior for the ages. His scenes with his wife, Lady Percy (Kelley Curran) add a note of joyous sexuality to the performance, bringing a new level of interest to the very real conflicts between them.
The various factions of Percy, Glendower, King Henry, and the other courtiers are extremely well-delineated; each character is unique, and the interplay between them is profoundly subtle, intense and real. In King Henry’s faction, the Earl of Westmoreland (Craig Wallace) has a powerful presence and an instinctive gift for making that presence felt. As Sir Walter Blount, Joel David Santner provides a many-layered, colorful performance which has an underlying current of deep loyalty. As the Lord Chief Justice, Derrick Lee Weeden has such authority and dignity that it is almost painful to watch Prince Hal attempt to make a fool of him. As Henry IV’s other sons, Patrick Vaill (Prince John of Lancaster), Alex Piper (Prince Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) and Nathan Winkelstein (Thomas, Duke of Clarence) each offer a distinctive and stylish characterization.
Among the rebels, Ted von Griethusen (Owen Glendower) is a marvel to behold, from his strangely punk costume to his demeanor as a somewhat demented Cowardly Lion. It is a joy to watch him exchange harsh words with Hotspur, who is less than interested in his wild Welsh fantasies. Edmund Mortimer (Aaron Gaines) and Lady Mortimer (Vanessa Sterling) make a delightful couple, and Lady Mortimer’s song is haunting and lovely. Rhett Henckel (Archibald, Earl of Douglas) parlays a truly spectacular Scottish accent(voice and text coach is Ellen O’Brien) into a riveting and nuanced portrayal of a soldier celebrated for his bravery.
The Percy family, aside from Hotspur and his wife, consists of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland (Kevin McGuire), Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester (Steve Pickering), Sir Richard Vernon (Chris Genebach) and Hotspur’s servant (Jack Powers). Kevin McGuire as Northumberland has some especially fine and moving moments. Steve Pickering as Worcester delivers an impressive performance, finding many shades of emotion and flashes of power. Chris Genebach (Sir Richard Vernon) expresses the tensions of a well-meaning man in a difficult situation brilliantly. Jack Powers as Hotspur’s servant holds his own with all the other outstanding performers.
Kate Skinner’s Mistress Quickly is refreshingly outspoken and self-possessed, and never falls into clichés or obvious tactics. Jude Sandy (Ned Poins) and Brad Bellamy (Bardolph) are quite a pair; watching Poins with Prince Hal, and Bardolph with Falstaff, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the production. Peto (Matthew McGee) and Gadshill (Chris Genebach, who also shines as Vernon) are equally energetic and gifted. The tapsters, Francis (Luis Alberto Gonzalez), Tom (Ade Otukoya), and Dick (Alex Piper) are delightfully amusing. As for the Travellers (Bev Appleton, Michael Crowley, Aaron Gaines, and Brendon Schaefer) and the whores of the tavern (Julia Brandeberry, Maggie Kettering, and Vanessa Sterling) one can only say that they all sustain the level of excellence which characterizes the entire production. Lords, soldiers, servants, and messengers are played, with brio, by the company.
Director Michael Kahn says of Henry IV, “It’s like Shakespeare’s greatest hits.” His direction (assisted by Associate Director Alan Paul) is stunningly original and full of profound insight. Alexander Dodge, the set designer, has created an evocative space which adapts seamlessly to the needs of the production. Michael Roth (compositions, sound design, and musical direction) can be justly proud of the music, which is simply beautiful, especially Lady Mortimer’s song. Lighting Designer Stephen Strawbridge enhances the quality and richness of the visual elements. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are perfect, as well as the wig design by Paul Huntley, with special kudos for Owen Glendower’s pink hair and otherworldly elegance, as well as Falstaff’s armor which is indescribable. The fight directors, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, deserve praise for their vivid, exciting work.
Much is made of honor in this play. Hotspur exalts it; Falstaff disdains it. And there are many images of stealing and thievery. Falstaff is a purse snatcher; Henry IV stole a crown. Prince Hal, once he becomes king, will do them all one better and attempt to steal the kingdom of France. But the real grace note of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production is not honor, or thievery, or even war. It is, astonishingly, love.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 plays through June 7, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall-610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.