Have you ever lived life without a superego? If so, you may have some notion of what it’s like to be Falstaff. The exhilarating feeling is one reason we are drawn to him, but it is the stuff of dreams. In Shakespeare Theatre Company’s spectacular Henry IV Part II, directed by Michael Kahn, the young Prince Hal gives up fantasy and rebellion for the sobering and often harsh realities of kingship. The production is a masterpiece of mature art. It is not to be missed.
As the play opens, the aging Henry IV faces increasing threats, and a difficult relationship with his son, Prince Hal, as his health deteriorates. Although Hal has won military acclaim as the hero of Shrewsbury, he is still torn between the seductive drama and high spirits of life with Falstaff, and the sobering and often harsh realities of kingship.
As Prince Hal, Matthew Amendt captures the complexity and deep emotion which drive Hal on to his destiny as king. Amendt is full of passion and fury, and yet can turn cold in an instant. As he places his head on his dying father’s chest, it is clear that although ambition courses through him like a drug, he is still capable of love. The final image of him on a balcony, as he surveys the map of England, is haunting and full of foreboding. He looks frightened.
Falstaff is, arguably, a comic genius, providing you believe in the notion of genius, that is. Stacy Keach portrays this mythic figure with an earthy charm and a light touch, turning the tables on anyone who challenges him with urbanity and imagination. Physically, he resembles a Rembrandt self-portrait; mentally, he is as gifted as he is charming. He trudges manfully through life, tossing off brilliant witticisms as if it was the easiest thing to do in the world. This Falstaff is lovable as he woos the ladies, and he speaks of his age with a wistful air. His soliloquys create an intimate relationship with the audience, and his ode to sack is a highlight of the production. It is a triumphant performance.
W. H. Auden writes perceptively about the Hal-Falstaff relationship: Why, essentially, does Hal associate with Falstaff and his companions? Not just for the surprise of his ‘reformation’ but because he must possess a knowledge of human weakness…Hal is the type who becomes a college president, a government head, etc., and one hates their guts. On the other side, we can’t govern ourselves. If Falstaff were running the world, it would be like the Balkans.” (W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, Arthur Kirsch, ed., Princeton University Press. 2000).
As King Henry IV, Edward Gero displays a depth of understanding of the disappointments of old age which is startling and yet deeply moving. His reconciliation with his son is poignant, and his anxiety about the future of England seems very real. He often has a look of fear, as if the ghost of the king he killed will appear at any moment and drag him down to hell. Ironically, while dying he advises Hal to pursue foreign wars to distract his enemies, a strategy Hal employs successfully in France. In the end perhaps the two are not so different after all.
As the other sons of King Henry, Patrick Vaill (Prince John of Lancaster), Alex Piper (Prince Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) and Nathan Winkelstein (Thomas, Duke of Clarence) tend to huddle together, as if protecting themselves from their scrapegrace older brother. Each has a unique and compelling character. Prince John, who has the most difficult role, embodies the outward bonhomie and inward coldness of his character with affecting aplomb. After his most profound act of cruelty, he enters to greet the dying king and is greeted as a harbinger of peace.
As the Earl of Westmoreland, Craig Wallace strides the stage with magnificent confidence and style. His voice alone is a significant asset to the production. As a sober adviser to the King, he does the King’s bidding; but it is clear that he is a man with hidden reserves of authority.
Kevin McGuire (Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland) has some particularly fine moments as he hangs his head in shame, as Julia Brandenberry (Lady Northumberland) and Kelley Curran (Lady Percy), Hotspur’s widow, attempt to convince him to retreat to Scotland. Kelley Curran creates a striking portrait of a widow who is still passionately in love with her dead husband. Julia Brandenberry sensitively portrays a wife whose concern for her husband’s safety overrides all other considerations, even his honor. As Northumberland’s servant, Travers, Jack Powers is the first to convey the bad news of Hotspur’s death to his father. His urgency, speed and conviction add to the breathtaking power of the scene.
The Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, as played by Derrick Lee Weeden, sees through Falstaff and has the intellectual integrity to imprison Prince Hal when it is called for, despite Hal’s high position. He is a representative of the rule of law, and as he reconciles with Prince Hal, we sense that the kingdom is being restored to order. His authority and presence as an actor make him a worthy antagonist to Falstaff. As his servant, Alex Piper is delightfully comic. Bev Appleton (Gower), Kevin McGuire (Warwick), and the Michael Crowley (Earl of Surrey) all turn in strong, yet subtle performances.
Among the rebels, Steve Pickering, as the Archbishop of York, continually has to explain why as a man of God he would be involved in something as irreligious as a rebellion against God’s anointed king. He articulates his position with dignity and remains optimistic rather than cynical when the opportunity for peace presents itself. Pickering skillfully depicts a man who is sure of his convictions, willing to compromise, yet full of purpose. Aaron Gaines, as the ever-hopeful Lord Hastings, presses his case vividly and well.
Rhett Henckel plays Thomas Mowbray, the cleverest among the rebels and the one who accurately predicts when things will go wrong. Interestingly, Falstaff when young served under Mowbray; both gentlemen display not just intelligence but a canny grasp of how the world actually works. Henckel displays his doubts with honesty and flair.
Lord Russell (Joel David Santner) and Sir John Coleville (John Keabler) make strong choices which serve their portrayals well. Keabler is directed to tremble visibly as he confronts Falstaff, which seems a bit over the top. But he carries off all the tasks of the role with just as much conviction as he brought to his superb performance as Hotspur.
Kate Skinner as Mistress Quickly has a soft spot for Falstaff, which does not prevent her from attempting to have him arrested for owing her money. She rants and raves, gestures with humor and energy, and modulates her performance beautifully from shrill disapproval to flirtation to heartbreak. Maggie Kettering as Doll Tearsheet fights bravely with Pistol, sits on Sir John’s lap, defends herself with vigor, and winningly demonstrates her utter devotion to the fat knight.
Ned Sandy as Poins and Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal have developed a rapport which works beautifully in performance. When they team up and disguise themselves as drawers to spy on Falstaff, their attempts to keep a straight face while Falstaff insults Hal behind his back add immeasurably to the comedy.
Peto (Matthew McGee), Pistol (Steve Pickering) and Bardolph (Brad Bellamy), he of the red shining nose, add so much to the whirlwind that surrounds Falstaff that it is hard to catch your breath when they are on stage. Max Jackson, as Falstaff’s page, derives all the wit that can possibly be derived from his character. Fang (Chris Genebach) and Snare (Matthew McGee) make a delightful team as they whizz around the stage attempting to arrest Falstaff. The tavern musicians (John Keabler, Alex Piper, and Nathan Winkelstein) and the Peasants (Julia Brandeberry & Vanessa Sterling) contribute immeasurably to the atmosphere of their scenes.
Ted van Griethuysen, as Shallow, and Bev Appleton, as Silence, are a hilarious comedy team. Davy, Shallow’s servant (Ade Otukoya) bravely carries on despite the insanity all around him. And who could forget the parade of soldiers Falstaff examines for recruitment purposes: Ralph Mouldy (Joel David Santner), Simon Shadow (Brendon Schaefer), Thomas Wart (Luis Alberto Gonzalez), Peter Bullcalf (Chris Genebach) and especially Francis Feeble (Matthew McGee), who is the biggest surprise of them all, but let’s just say you’ll be surprised.
Lords, soldiers, drawers, servants and messengers, are all played with distinction by the company.
One of the secrets of Kahn’s direction is the use of gesture to convey meaning; bona roba (which means essentially good-looking girl), is suggested by, shall we say, pointing out certain attractive aspects of the female figure. The fight scenes have style, dash, and an element of extreme urgency, thanks to fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Ann Hould-Ward triumphs with the costumes again, along with wig designer Paul Huntley. A particular costume success among many is Peter Bullcalf’s hat. Alexander Dodge’s set is dominated by a scrim which consists of a huge map of England; it is stunningly evocative. The elegance of the transitions, and the beauty of the set itself, contribute to the overall style of the production, which becomes a medieval and deeply satisfying world of its own. Michael Roth (Composer/Music Director/Sound Score) again uses music to great effect. Falstaff and friends sing a lovely ditty about growing old, and ominous strains underscore moments of tension and betrayal. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting enhances the rest of the production design.
Youth and age are key concepts in this production; betrayal and love are present, as are comedy, illness and death. The presence of the map, which hovers over the stage, suggests what is at stake; the future of England. As he prepared to play Falstaff, the British actor Simon Callow in The Independent identified Falstaff with “a figure common to many cultures, known variously as the Substitute King, or the Inter-rex. When the Divine King in these cultures becomes ill or incapable, a Substitute King is sought. “this King for a day, a week or an indefinite period of atmospheric danger, has to perform rites of over-eating, over-drinking, and excessive coupling… to reinvigorate the reproductive powers of nature” and initiate the heir of the Divine King…Hal’s initiation and growth to manhood can only be achieved as a result of a negotiation with nature, a negotiation which we have largely abandoned. It is salutary to think that as recently as 400 years ago, the greatest genius of the language placed a primitive figure right at the centre of his great saga of English life. (Simon Callow, The Fat Man in History, The Independent, August 11, 1998.
In the end, how we respond to Falstaff may have more to do with our own perceptions and fears than the character as written by Shakespeare. Still, he has greatness.
Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission.
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 plays through June 7, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall-610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.