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An interview with a Falstaff

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With the honor speech, it’s very hard to feel like they weren’t really with you because you are asking them questions, and even if they don’t speak aloud, they nod, they smile. There’s something about being asked a question directly that makes people respond differently, facially and everything. They understand that you asked them a question, and by asking a question, you’re saying, “I’m inviting you in.” But when you’re up there giving a speech and there are no questions, it’s “Here’s what sack is and here’s how it affects your body,” this kind of thing—it’s a great speech, he talks about the body as this little kingdom and I can still do the exact blocking, the sword’s in my hand, I do this on the heart. But you have to trust that they are already with you, because you’re just going, you’re just riffing.

It’s not like playing Iago, because Iago asks all these questions of the audience. It’s not like playing Hamlet, though I haven’t played Hamlet. It’s not even like playing Claudius, because even Claudius, his soliloquy, is asking questions and it’s really interesting to see Falstaff in Part 2 not asking questions. It’s almost like Shakespeare is so confident that this is a loved guy that it was like, “Let’s just give him some party pieces,” and then he pulls the rug out at the end where he just shattered him into nothingness, where all his words have been taken from him. And maybe that’s—and I hadn’t really thought about it that way until now—but maybe that’s what that’s about. Here’s this guy who can give this speech on old men and “every third word a lie” and then give the sack speech and then Hal tells him, “That’s it, buddy,” and he pulls the rug out and he’s like “Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pounds.” I mean, it’s an amazing thing to have said; he goes right to the heart of the thing. But then in the next minute he tries to deny it; he goes into denial mode.

Henry IV, Part 1, along with King Lear are my two favorite plays. I love all the characters. Hotspur is great.
Yeah.
But I’ve never seen a good production of Henry IV, Part 1, until we saw the one here.
Wow, well that’s high praise.
I think Luke Eddy might have been the key. If you have a really good Hal, it all comes together.

I really liked his Hal. I heard a couple of people who didn’t, but I really liked it. I think he was charismatic and he’s likeable. There’s just something deeply likeable about him.

He also did it right after coming off of Hamlet. I wonder if that informed his Hal.

Maybe.

The key is the relationship with Falstaff. In my notes I compared you to Lennon–McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.
[Chuckles]
There’s a connection on stage.
I’m glad.
So that when you’re doing the tavern scene, and I even picked up on the emboweled joke at the end, that got a huge laugh. I’ve never heard a laugh like that from that line, and that can only happen after two hours of…
Connection, yeah. I’m happy to hear you say that because I met Luke in Texas, actually. He was working with my son; they were working together at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and I was really happy when he came up to work with the touring company. And I think in part because he was close to my son, Tom, I got exposed to him in a hurry because they were friends, so I think that sort of made it easier for us, too. When we hit our rehearsal period, we already had a connection and liked each other.

So how important is that connection in making Falstaff work?

It was important to me. I’ve never had to experience it in another way, so I don’t know what it would be like if it were somebody that I didn’t like, that I didn’t connect with. When Patrick came into the season, I remember thinking "I hope I really like this guy" because it makes a difference when you play Henry IV, Part 2. So when Patrick and I hit it off almost immediately—he’s just an immensely likeable guy—that made it easier. But I was also—and this is nothing off Patrick’s performance— I was sorry that Luke wasn’t going to be there for Part 2. It would have been nice to carry through with the same Hal, for me, just because I felt a good connection in Part 1 so I would like to have reproduced that in 2 or extend the performance, especially when you still have the same Henry IV and we had a lot of the same folks. And it was great to have John [Harrell] as the Chief Justice. I really liked that piece of casting. To me, it was nice to have that interaction with him in the early going as the Chief Justice.

Also in the rejection scene.

Also in the rejection scene, and also there’s just a little, little, little relationship to Ford and Falstaff. It’s the most tenuous relationship, but for me it’s part of the joy of working in rep. Nobody else has to feel that echo, necessarily, but I feel that echo in me as an actor. I know that this is the same actor that was Ford to my Falstaff in Merry Wives and now here he is in a similar kind of highly serious role; there’s just a parallel there. It’s those reverberations that I love in rep. I don’t know if any of the audience is aware of that, but I’m aware of it the whole time I’m acting. It makes my job better.

And it comes through in the acting.

It informs everything, all the interrelations are there to me, I think. I may not be cognizant of it all the time, but I do think about things like that; it does come into my mind, and I feel that if that comes into my mind, it must get into my body and my spirit and the moment.

In changing Hals, I guess the key is, does the rejection scene work? And it did, it seemed to come off. I’m feeling sorry for you but at the same time I’m going, well, yeah…
“You should have seen it coming,” yeah.

And that’s the thing, too, isn’t it? That’s the beautiful human moment of that play, I think. It’s when we always stand outside other people’s relationships and we say, “Oh, my God, how could he not have seen this coming? Everybody around you could see this coming, and you couldn’t see this coming?” And it’s like, “Well, you know what? I was in love. I couldn’t see this coming, I thought we defined this relationship, I thought it went this way, and I was counting on it.”

That’s the thing about Falstaff, too. This is the only horse he’s backed, and it hasn’t come in. That’s wow! It’s sort of shocking to think you put all your money on that and to have it pull out at the last second. Must have been like working with Bernie Madoff, you know what I mean? Suddenly it’s all gone. And the first thing he says is, “I owe you a thousand pounds. That can hardly be, Master Shallow.” And where did he spend a thousand pounds in that time? He’s had no time to spend it. He hasn’t bought any liveries. He goes back to see Shallow after the battle and he says, “I have to go.” Shallow’s like, “No, stay stay.” So he stays. But you’ve got to figure he was leaving because he’s already got the thousand pounds and wanted to get out of there. And something attracts him to stay. The scene was deeply cut, but we had a big conversation about why is he staying? What is it drawing him here? And part of it was he just wants the ease of this life at this point. He doesn’t want to keep on with the next thing, on with the next thing. “You have here a goodly dwelling and a rich,” he says to Shallow. He has just been admiring all this guy has, and then Pistol walks in and says, “You got what you wanted. It’s all come in.

Right, and then he loses both.

He loses everything, yeah. I used to try to get that in the physical moment so that Patrick would reject me and I would just be sort of shocked. Patrick would then say, “My lord chief justice, you’re going to be in charge of this.” So then I’d look at John and I’d want to get all of our contact before into that moment, that now he’d won. And I never thought he would win. I was going to be the winner in this one. So it’s this look of utter shock, that, “Oh my God, this guy! I was such a smart ass, too, and I got in his face, and now he’s my boss, he’s in charge of any possibility I may have? I’m so deeply screwed.” So when Patrick would go out as Hal, I would do two steps upstage toward him and turn my back entirely to the audience as if I were going to try to make one more plea. My hands were up and, after he’d gone through the curtains [at the back of the stage], the first thing was to drop the hands. That’s the resignation, that’s what I wanted it to read, that the audience would see. And then two maybe three beats, “Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pounds.” Just growly and as low as you can get it. So it’s defeat. It’s great. The moment you live for as an actor, you know? When you can hear the silence behind you and around you and you know everybody is right with you in that moment, it’s a pretty terrific feeling. Got to be the reason to do it.

Did you feel it most nights?

I felt it every performance with that show, regardless of how other scenes had gone. Everybody in that moment. What we got some nights, where he says “I know thee not, old man,” somebody in the audience would go “Oh, no!” How great is that! They didn’t believe it was coming either, even though they knew it was coming, and they would audibly say, “Oh, no”? Fantastic!

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