Write a scholarly review of a play in the current RSC repertoire
that sets the acting and/or directing in the context of other productions.
There is no such thing as a definitive production of a Shakespearean play. Each is evaluated in the context of the productions that have gone before it; yet each performance can only succeed or fail in its own context its time and place, director and cast. Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One has always been one of his most popular plays. It was initially printed in at least two quarto editions within a few months of each other; one, as Stanley Wells put it "read almost out of existence" . These were followed by at least six additional quartos as well as its publication in the First Folio. It was among a "small but perennial cluster of Shakespeare's plays still on the boards when the theatres had closed in 1642" and was among "the most frequently revived of all pre-war plays." After the Restoration in 1660 it was included in the repertory of the King's Company and continued in to be well-received. Samuel Pepys' diary entries recorded his attendance at no less than four performances of Henry IV over the period of 1660-1668. Although
2Henry IV has not been as popular as its predecessor over the years, it, too, is performed frequently, often in conjunction with Part One, and both plays have maintained their prominence to the present day.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's current Henry IV, Parts One and Two which opened in August 2007 at the Courtyard Theatre is the most recent production of these perennial favorites. Presented as separate and independent plays, Part One directed by Michael Boyd and Part Two by Richard Twyman, they were nonetheless united by their position at the center of the second tetrology of the RSC's Histories Cycle (framed by Richard II and Henry V) and by their performance by a single company of actors, with a continuing cast. Their connection was reinforced by a unified costume design by Emma Williams as well as by Tom Piper's unit set design (used for Richard II as well). The RSC enhanced this connection by creating for both Henry IVs a single program, rather than the individual programs printed for the other plays in the series. This choice to perform the plays as separate productions, but treat them stylistically, in casting, design and marketing as a single unit created for the audience a sense of continuity, of one story told in two parts rather than two separate and distinct plays.
Whether these two plays should be approached as separate and individual entities or as two parts of whole is an intriguing question. Although both parts of Henry IV were written and originally performed as two separate plays, there was apparently little or no delay between the writing of parts one and two. Part One was entered into the Stationer's Register in 1598 and published in quarto as The History of Henrie the Fourth in the same year. The first quarto of Part Two, published in 1600 under the name of The Second Part of Henry IV, referred to it as "Sundryie times publikely acted" indicating its presence in an acting version well before that date. There is little doubt that Shakespeare intended Part Two to be a continuation of the Part One essentially, one play in ten acts.
The RSC's choice to produce these plays as separate but connected productions is, therefore, a logical and familiar one. These two plays are often produced together in repertory or as part of a more extensive series of plays: a Henriad or Full History Cycle. However, performing the two Henry IVs in series is not the only option open to directors. The two parts of Henry IV have also been combined in a variety of ways to produce a single play. The first of these conflations was performed in 1622 when the two parts of Henry IV were fused and presented as a single play called Sir John Falstaff. Orson Welles' 1965 film adaptation, Chimes at Midnight, telescoped the entire tetralogy of Falstaff and Prince Hal from
Richard II to Henry V into less than two hours.
One of the most successful recent conflations was the 2003 New York production of Henry IV performed at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. In an adaptation by Dakin Matthews, the two plays were combined and cut from a total of seven and a half hours to three hours, 45 minutes, in three acts, including two intermissions, with Part One encompassing the bulk of the first two acts and Part Two the final act. In a Playbill article Matthews explained:
The second play is done so rarely in this country [US] and only paired with the first.
Part two is a wonderful play, though not a great as part one. But it has five or six
glorious scenes that no one should be allowed to get through life without seeing.
Directed by Jack O'Brien, this production, specifically created to appeal to American audiences less familiar with British history, combined the battle scenes from each play into one huge spectacular battle, as well as merging the tavern scenes and eliminating some of the less active and redundant scenes in Part Two. The resulting compression was vigorous and fluid, with great immediacy, speed and clarity.
Looking at the current RSC productions in historical context, and, most particularly, in contrast to each other and the Lincoln Center conflation, allows us to examine the directorial and acting choices that were made in each. One factor which helps to determine a director's approach to a production, both in design and staging, is the physical stage on which it will be performed. The thrust stage of the Courtyard Theatre, like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, functions best with minimal sets, of which Tom Piper's massive but somehow unobtrusive, multi-leveled, spiral staircased tower is an excellent example. It is striking enough to accent the most dramatic moments of the plays, flexible enough for a variety of exits and entrances, yet it does not interfere with sightlines or the free flow of action, and its verticality emphasizes and enhances Michael Boyd's three dimensional style of staging. Michael Boyd spoke of the impact of the thrust stage in a radio interview with Heather Neill:
The first and most important liberation is from behind the proscenium arch so that
the actors and the audience are in the same room so that theatre begins to plug into
its proper roots as a shared process, a shared experience, a ritual or a piece of
story-telling, a sharing.
He then went on to say "The next big thing it gives you is three dimensionality, " explaining that the awareness of depth on a thrust stage makes blocking choices all the more important, since the audience sees the action from all angles. Boyd's appreciation and intimate knowledge of the advantages of a thrust stage are apparent in his direction of 1Henry IV. His staging is active, vital and innately dimensionally, creating stage pictures that go well beyond the bare necessities of the action to become, in themselves a comment on the play. His use of moments of stylized, ritualized, choreographed, almost slow motion movement, such as that of the armies during Douglas's pursuit of Sir Walter Blount disguised as King Henry through the battle of Shrewsbury in Act 5 scene 3, seem momentarily surreal, but actually clarified the action and lend a unique focus to what might otherwise have been a chaotic scene on that stage. The effect was almost cinematic and very effective. Boyd is known for his use of every dimension of the stage. He believes the thrust stage "encouraged us to go into the vertical as well" calling it "a very renaissance dimension" and his use of climbing and swinging ropes, and ladders up the corners and sides of the stage utilizes every inch of the playing area. This dynamic, three dimensional staging sets the audience right in the midst of the action. Richard Twyman's use of the thrust stage in 2Henry IV - his awareness of sightlines and staging of large cast scenes - was somewhat less successful than Boyd's. Some of his choices, such as the staging of Henry and Hal's confrontation over the crown and Hal's ultimate rejection of Falstaff looking down from above in the haughty and aloof isolation of his new Kingship, were striking; others, such as the imposition of a jail cell descending from above to imprison the Cheapside gang, seemed contrived and unnecessary.
The Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, although not a true proscenium stage, is less of a thrust than the Courtyard. With its massive size, deep triangular apron and the audience on two sides rather than three, the staging options open to it were more varied and elaborate, and director Jack O'Brien took advantage of its opportunities with every design and staging choice. Ralph Funicello's smoky black architectural set made the most of the space, with large moveable pieces that flowed smoothly to reveal new worlds within worlds. Brian MacDivitt's brilliant lighting design was the perfect accent to the set, magically creating both huge spaces and tiny intimate moments. The music and sound design by Mark Bennett both underscored and enhanced the action and melded all the design aspects into one. Within this artistic framework, Jack O'Brien's staging had a flexibility and dramatic potential of a totally different nature than could have been possible at the Courtyard, as epitomized by the complete sensory experience that he achieved in his Battle of Shrewsbury, as well as the elegant simplicity of his staging of the tavern scenes.
A director must also determine the focus of a production. Henry IV parts one and two contain multiple overlapping plots and characters with huge personalities and presence King Henry, Prince Hal, Hotspur, and, of course, Falstaff. Jack O'Brien, discussing the play in an article in Playbill said:
You have all of these stories going, and these characters are each virtually wresting
the play away from the others The play is constantly shifting and trying to accommodate
these gigantic egos, and I have to put them into some shape that a contemporary audience,
and American audience can relate to.
One of these "gigantic egos" is both the biggest asset and the greatest challenge of these plays. Both parts of Henry IV are categorized within Shakespeare's canon as histories. When taken together, however, the plays are much more than simple political history; they also share with the audience an intensely personal family dynamic. As such, one would expect the focus of the play to be the title character, King Henry IV, or, since the main thrust of story line centers on the growth of the future King Henry V and his relationship with his father and the throne, perhaps his son and heir, Prince Hal. And yet, historically, the most vital character in the play, the one that directors and audiences most often focus on, is neither of these, but rather a relatively minor character who is totally outside the central story lines of the play Sir John Falstaff.
Shakespeare's Falstaff is a larger-than-life character who fills the stage, threatening to overpower the other characters and the plot of the plays turning them into simply a backdrop for the fat old knight. Combining the lines that he speaks in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Falstaff's role consists of more than 1,200 lines, making it the second largest role in all of Shakespeare, after Hamlet. Popular interest in both parts of Henry IV, from Shakespeare's day through the Restoration and into the present, has been centered on Sir John Falstaff and is one of the main reasons for their continuing popularity. Some scholars believe he was first played in Shakespeare's time by Will Kemp, others perhaps by Heminge or Lowin. He continues to fascinate both actors and audiences alike and over the years has since been played by the most talented and famous actors of their times. Villiers Bathurst wrote in 1699:
The wits of all qualities have lately entertained themselves with a revived
humour of Sir John Falstaff in Henry the Fourth, which has drawn all the
town, more than any new play that has been produced of late and critics
allow that Mr. Betterton has hit the humour of Falstaff better than any that
have aimed at it before."
Other famous Falstaffs have included Stephen Kemble, James Quin, Orson Welles, Ralph Richardson, John Goodman, Anthony Quayle, and Barry Stanton.
It is therefore to their credit that the directors of both the RSC and Lincoln Center productions resisted the temptation to let Falstaff take over their shows. Richard Twyman spoke enthusiastically in his director's talk at the RSC of working in an ensemble with no hierarchy, no sense of one character's journey being more important than anyone else's. In fact, all three directors were very effective in creating a true ensemble performance, maintaining a fine balance among the various stories and characters in the plays, allowing their Falstaffs to distinguish themselves in the context of the role, but not to so overpower the plays as to make the main plots of the plays insignificant. A vital ingredient of the success of this ensemble work in both companies was the excellent and very balanced casting of the major roles.
All three directors refer to the Henry IVs as a family story. As Jack O'Brien said of it in his interview with John Guare,:
It's a play, among many things, about fathers and sons It isn't about kings, and it
isn't about England. It's about life, it's about what it means to disappoint, what it
means to rebel, what it means to transcend, what it means to try to be better, what
it means to get away with it. These are all things we confront in our daily lives.
Yet, while their basic perceptions of the plays were similar, their approaches, casting choices and results were very different. Much of the source of the differences between their final results could be found in the casting of the four main characters. The two RSC productions featured David Warner as Falstaff, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Prince Hal, Clive Wood as King Henry IV, and Lex Shrapnel as Hotspur. Jack O'Brien, in the Lincoln Center production, cast Kevin Kline as Falstaff, Michael Hayden as Prince Hal, Richard Easton as Henry IV, and Ethan Hawke as Hotspur. It is in the interaction of these actors and the relationship between the characters they portray that each director's concept takes shape and diverges.
Costumed in an ill-fitting fat suit that sagged in the middle to hint at the tall, thin actor beneath, David Warner' Falstaff is a world weary old man. When Michael Boyd was asked about David Warner's Falstaff he said:
David is utterly unsentimental in his approach to Falstaff so there's nothing cuddly
in him, but because of David you're always glad to see him come on the stage and
you forgive him in a way you really shouldn't.
Richard Twyman called him "strangely bemused by the young people around him." Low-key, with little of the bluster and high-powered life-loving ebullience that has been historically associated with Falstaff, yet with a twinkle in his eye and an appealing sense of mischief, Warner's Falstaff seems to tolerate young Hal rather than have any true paternal feelings for him, which takes some of the poignancy from Falstaff's defense of himself in their Act 2, scene 4 mock trial. With another actor playing Hal, this might have fallen flat. But Geoffrey Steatfeild's cold, somewhat manic, calculating Prince Hal is the perfect match for Warner's Falstaff. Less loveable, more intellectual, more arrogant than Hal is often played, their scenes together are more of a contest between an old master tired of the fight and a rising young student challenging his supremacy than a father-son relationship. This lends a competitive edge to their scenes which has its own vibrancy, but which changes the balance between them. Warner's Falstaff comes into his own in Part Two, where his melancholy and ebbing life-force is a perfect reflection of the decay of Henry's own health and Kingship. Clive Wood, as King Henry, contributes to this balance in both plays. Starting as a strong king plagued with guilt but well in control of his majesty, if not his son, his gradual decline is masterful, and his scenes with Hal, going from their unusually physical confrontation in Part One, to the sick-bed scene in Part Two where Henry's declining strength finally triggers Hal's humanity, are riveting. Lex Shrapnel, too, gives a powerful performance as Hotspur, balancing Hal's coldness with a fiery restlessness and sense of purpose that makes it clear why Henry would envy Northumberland his son. The result is a balanced, powerful cast which gives a nuanced and unexpected interpretation to both parts of Henry IV.
As Lincoln Center's Falstaff, Kevin Kline, as tall and slim as Warner, grew out and whitened his hair and added well fitting padding which gave him a presence more immensely large than simply fat. He, too, resisted the urge to take over the stage. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, commenting on Kline's performance, wrote:
The wonderful surprise is how he deviates from the convention of bluster and
braggadocio. Mr. Kline has never had more of a chance to make a meal of the
scenery. Instead, he delivers a finely measured performance that matches the actor's
infinite resourcefulness with that of the character he plays.
Falstaff's weariness is present in his performance as well as Warner's, especially in his struggles to lift his oversized body from the horizontal, but Kline retains far more of Falstaff's spirit, his craftiness and his gamesmanship. His mastery of the comedic elements of the character and of stage business makes every gesture a comment, every moment a triumph, even in defeat. His was a Falstaff who could easily have taken over the play. Again, it is in the casting of Hal that the balance was maintained. Michael Hayden's Hal had warmth as well as wit. More complex than Steatfeild's portrayal, Hayden, who was a late replacement for Billy Crudup in rehearsals, played Hal with a searching rather than calculating nature, with all the poignancy and chameleon quality of young man trying to find his place in the world; and his relationship with Falstaff was far more father-son than that of the RSC pair. Their characters shared a lively affection and sense of fun which provided the balance in their scenes. Richard Easton's Henry also provides a counterbalance to Kline's Falstaff. His role was somewhat shortened by the conflation of the two plays, yet he succeeded in portraying a strong, pragmatic Henry whose stern nature, reflecting his own struggle to deal with his guilt and live up to his hard fought for royalty, was in perfect contrast with the more ebullient Falstaff. Ethan Hawke's Hotspur was far too contemporary for this play lending a dissonant note and making this audience member wonder how he could possibly be thought of as more princely than Hal. But his raw energy was effective as a counter to Hal's thoughtfulness.
The current RSC and the 2003 Lincoln Center productions of Shakespeare's Henry IV demonstrate two very different approaches to the challenge of telling the full story of King Henry IV and his wayward son. Their different directors, stages, designs, staging concepts, structures, styles, and casts, contrasted with surprisingly similar directorial points of view regarding the plays' dramatic focus and balance resulted in very different performances. And yet all three productions work, in their own way and for their own space, and each gives us unique and important insights into Henry IV.
--- Arlene Schulman, October 2007