Sign up for our free newsletter
The king has nightmares, and who can blame him? As the lights come up on a tossing, turning Henry IV at the Lansburgh Theatre, he’s abed and afraid—pursued even in dreams by the curses of the leader whose position he usurped.
As well he should be. Bill Alexander begins his robust staging of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 with invective from Richard II—Richard’s accurate prophecy of chaos in the house that supplants him, which now haunts Henry’s feverish dreams. Awakened by his own cries, the king finds little comfort in the real world. His allies are deserting him, his lands are under attack from Welsh rebels, and his eldest son, Hal, who ought to be helping him hold his kingdom together, is living a profligate life in Eastcheap taverns.
The two parts of Henry IV offer a vision of social dissolution—Kenneth Tynan called them “great public plays in which a whole nation is under scrutiny and on trial”—but this first half is all about personal flaws. Not the flaws of its title character (which the Bard explored at length in Richard II) but the shortcomings of a trio of richly imagined figures who animate the scenes outside the king’s court: carousing Prince Hal, who will inherit his father’s throne as Henry V; his fat drinking buddy and unreliable teacher, John Falstaff; and his chief antagonist, the honorable but reckless Henry “Hotspur” Percy. A wastrel, a braggart, and a hothead, they’re full-bodied, impatient creatures, whose appetites make them the play’s most indelibly human touchstones for viewers who can’t tell a Plantagenet from a parsnip.
Falstaff is the crowd-pleaser, and as played by Ted van Griethuysen, he’s an entertainingly transparent liar, if not the broad clown audiences may expect. Splashing his face with the dregs of the previous night’s beer, then toweling off with a filthy rag, he appears little more than a corpulent, whiny tavern rat, but he’s no fool. Ask him to impersonate a king and he becomes a calculating vision of royalty incarnate; give him a military commission and a little cash, and he’ll betray his patron and his country quicker than you can call him coward. Falstaff’s cunning is pretty breathtaking, and van Griethuysen doesn’t upstage it with a lot of comic business. As a result, he’s not endearing enough to be heartbreaking when Hal humiliates him, but he’s plenty chilling once his greed and mendacity start endangering lives on the battlefield.
Andrew Long’s impatient Hotspur initially seems a one-note sorehead, but his inability to keep his mouth shut when it’s immensely to his advantage to do so begins to make him almost sympathetic after a while. Alienating each of his allies in turn, from Edward Gero’s Nixonesque Worcester to Floyd King’s befurred and furious Glendower, this Hotspur’s a principled ass, besotted with his own reputation.
Christopher Kelly’s Prince Hal is less easily pegged. When he’s the center of attention, he has a slacker’s air about him, especially in the presence of his pal Poins (Caleb Mayo), with whom he seems a tad infatuated. But watch him watching others and you’ll spy a regal reserve. This king-in-waiting is taking stock of his soon-to-be subjects—ingratiating himself, yes, but only when it suits his purpose. When Hal’s father tells him to shape up for the good of the realm, he’s fully prepared, and his eloquence during negotiations and prowess in battle don’t come out of nowhere.
The rest range from quite fine—Keith Baxter’s evocatively guilt-ridden, war-weary Henry seems to be vocally channeling Derek Jacobi on occasion—to merely adequate, with a few message bearers spouting exposition as if they have little idea what they’re saying. Happily, Alexander’s visually striking staging emphasizes clarity, with alliances color-coded in Ruari Murchison’s costumes and underlined by bright unfurling scrolls that descend from the heavens as if some Bush adviser had been placed in charge of photo ops.
That this notion of political spin should crop up probably isn’t accidental in a saga dealing with a national leader whose legitimacy is questionable, in which officials deflect peace offers while misleading allies about the intentions of the other side. The staging doesn’t force these issues, but viewers of a mind to find parallels won’t have to look far. (For those more interested in theatrical parallels, there’s a Merlin reference in a scene that manages to be ethnically diverse far more gracefully than Arena’s recent multiculti Camelot.) Mostly, though, the staging is self-contained and solid, if not particularly gripping—more likely to prompt ruminations on personal betrayals than on political ones.
I can’t say the three-and-a-half-hour evening left me hankering for the sequel, exactly, though I confess I’m curious about how the director will negotiate the darker terrain of Part 2 when the company tackles it in mid-March. The two halves will play in repertory from May 5 to May 16—which should, if the troupe can sustain the level of performance, offer a nice response to the single-evening condensation of Henry IV (the Shakespeare Theatre did its own condensation nine years ago) that the Lincoln Center Theater recently built around Kevin Kline’s Falstaff. CP