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An interview with a Falstaff

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But the juxtaposition to Part 1, where he’s in a play that has Hotspur and Glendower, the title character, Prince Hal—he’s one of many characters and he becomes the centerpiece for that play.

Because Hal is so important.

Then in Part 2, where Falstaff’s popularity was established by that time, and it seems to be, “Here’s Falstaff going from one adventure to another and, oh, by the way, Hal becomes king.”

Yeah, even in his speeches. This was the thing where it was really apparent in the Blackfriars, because in the speeches in Part 2 he is not talking to the audience the same way that he is talking to them in Part 1. In Part 1, his speeches have questions in them, and in Part 2, they have no questions. He just says, “Here’s my ideas about sack. Let me just tell you about that,” and he holds forth a while. “Here’s my ideas about lying old men. I’ll just hold forth for a while.” They’re great speeches, but it’s not the same level, it’s not the same type of engagement as “what is honor?”

But how did you make it engaging, because I’m going to go back to what I wrote, that what to me made that production so great was you, was your Falstaff?

Which production?

Part 2. At the end, I jumped to my feet. I come from the English standard…
A-ha! so you don’t stand.
I don’t stand, unless everybody else does and I want to see.
People stand up in Blackfriars all the time. It’s always funny to go to productions in other places and realize it doesn’t happen all the time.
And there I jumped to my feet in the end, and also to Henry VI, Part 2, I did, too. Anyway, it was how engaging and endearing your Falstaff was that I thought made Part 2 a very enjoyable play for me when I did not expect it to be as enjoyable. So you did something. You turned these holding forths into an endearing character. Could it have been the Blackfrairs itself? Your sack speech utilized the vending cart and you robbed from the tip jar.

That was a decision based on Part 1 when we had been talking about an interlude and there’s a couplet that says—I can’t remember the exact couplet—but it has to do with a guest and feast. And I said to Ralph, “Is it too much of a violation of the locus and plataea of the stage—normally we’d say fourth wall, but there’s no fourth wall in the Blackfriars and there wouldn’t have been for Shakespeare—for me to get the bar cart and sort of lead the audience into the interlude and use that as a way of punctuating this couplet but also get Falstaff into that gray area, of keeping him in that in-between space? And Ralph was like, yeah. I misremember these things a lot of times, but I do think that idea came from me in Part 1. I pulled the cart out, I took a bottle and threw it up in the air and caught it in the other hand and headed out.

So in the second part, Ralph said, “I’d like to bring back you bringing out the bar cart.” And I said, “Well, it works great with the sack speech.” The tip jar idea did not come from me. I don’t remember exactly who it came from, but it was gold.

Yeah, it was so Falstaff.

I like it too because it’s such a violation of the separation of character and actor, because you’re in an actor’s space. If you’re stealing American dollars from a tip jar and you’re this English character 500 years ago, there’s something marvelous about that. And I think especially because of the epilogue in that play, it’s clear that the audience understood that Falstaff and Kemp were somehow one and the same, that Shakespeare’s audience saw them as inseparable. Because he talks about his dancing; that’s Kemp talking, not Falstaff talking, and he probably would have still been in the fat suit—and he did wear a fat suit, we know that—and he probably would have still been in it. Also, that epilogue is weird because it’s two epilogues slammed up together, and one of them is an author’s epilogue, so it would have been Shakespeare probably saying it at court, and then the other part is clearly Kemp. But we had a mash-up of the two of them and we had our own cuts in the version that we did—small cuts, not huge. But that epilogue is about that blur, too, and the way we did it was to really make apparent the separation of character and actor and by doing that to make apparent the joining of character and actor, that there are always characters and actors simultaneously, and that’s what we come for. So I like that moment with the bar cart because I thought, “Here is a little violation before the ultimate admission of what we already know.” [Laughs]

In Blackfriars, you’re able, in Part 2, all those holding forth speeches you can give to the gallants on the stools, you can give them to…
The gallants on the stools, you can give them out to the house, you can distribute them around, and it’s important to distribute them around the room. I will tell you that it did not feel the same as Part 1. I very often felt like the audience was not connected to me [in Part 2]. It’s an intangible, it’s hard to read. I think it might be a function of the seriousness of the play and about its concerns about age and that kind of thing.

Did you feel that generally or every night?

I felt it generally. Some days were better than others. I’m talking specifically about the speeches, not with the whole play. I think I felt that way [a compared to] Part 1 where I’m asking people questions, where I was making the entire audience stand up at one point, and then riffing off of that when opportunities came up. I was allowed to ad lib and I was encouraged to ad lib when things went wrong or things were funny, and we had some great things go wrong and funny in those moments.

There was a nun in the audience one night and I focused on her. I just said at one point “For their poverty I know not where they got that,” and I said, “Well, except for the nun, she took a vow.” She’s sitting in the middle of the stalls in a habit, so it’s like everybody is very aware of this nun the entire production, so if you don’t do something with it, then you’re not showing up for your job, as far as I’m concerned

When I got all of them up one time, there was this one woman down in the corner, first row of the stalls, and she wouldn’t stand up. Everybody else stood up; she wouldn’t stand up. There was nothing I could do. I went over to her specifically; I’m like [he motions to stand] “Come on,” and I just said something very clever like, “Women!” which was not good. It was like she won that battle. So, at the end of the play, I’m hoisting up Hotspur’s body [played by Tobias Shaw], flung it over my shoulder, and Hal had left the glove on his face. So, every time I would throw Toby over my shoulder the glove would flop behind me and sometimes it would slide off the stage. I would go over and try to pick up the glove while I had all this weight on my back and Hal came in and talked with Westmoreland. I’m occupied, and this is why they hadn’t seen me; I’m over here trying to get this thing, it’s not too disruptive, they can still be talking. So I went over to get the glove, it was still on the edge of the stage, and this woman who wouldn’t get up earlier, gets up and hands me the glove. And so I say, even though Luke is talking, I say, “Oh, now you get up,” and the whole place fell out. It was just one of those moments, you couldn’t ask for that, but you have to show up for that, you have to be there for that.

That’s the problem with this theater, you’ve got to be at every performance.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s the thing. Any theater, but especially here.
What I call only-in-Blackfriars moments.
Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. It’s one of the reasons I love working here, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that can happen.

This is the way I would put it to you. I was very thankful to have done Part 1 while I was doing the speeches in Part 2, because I felt like Part 1 made me feel like I was Falstaff, so no matter what would happen with the audience in Part 2, I understood that I could be comfortable as Falstaff. So what I like to think—I always worry about how egotistical I’m going to sound—but what I like to think is that my comfort with Falstaff by the time I did Part 2 came through in those speeches. I could really just have a conversation with the audiences. They didn’t feel like performances; they felt like conversations. And yet, like the sack speech, was so orchestrated. Every move of it was so planned and orchestrated as to when do you take the next drink, you have to be able to drain the bottle, there has to be this much in the bottle, you have to go back to the cart at this point. All of that stuff was very precisely worked out, and we thought about it for a long time and adjusted with performance. But it still always felt spontaneous to me. Like the dance steps were set, but how they get danced was a function of the moment. I think that’s probably true in all acting situations, but again in the Blackfriars it’s different because you’re looking people in the face, and they’re looking you back and you feel like some of them are with you and you feel like some of them aren’t. I feel like they’ve glazed over sometimes.

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