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An interview with a Falstaff

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When you were talking about Merry Wives of Windsor, you mentioned that Falstaff seems to be somebody who wants connection. I noticed that in Part 2, the Doll Tearsheet [played by Ginna Hoben] relationship was done as a very loving relationship, which I’d not seen done before.

I think it’s a mistake if you don’t do it that way.

That’s what I was going to ask you. Do you feel that that worked and do you feel Falstaff is somebody that the women, especially, and Hal genuinely love?

Ahhhh, you’ve got to listen to the women. I think it’s important, I think it’s really important. We know how silly Mistress Quickly is and how stupid she is about language at times, but she’s got the best of hearts, she’s got the best of hearts. Just because somebody’s a whore doesn’t mean they don’t feel deeply and they don’t have connections. I think what Mistress Quickly says about him, “I’ve known you 30 years. I’ve never known a better-hearted man,” that’s fantastic praise to get, and I’m not on stage for that. It’s the sincerest type of thing to have walked off and somebody said this about you. Somebody that the audience loves says this. So, yeah, Falstaff’s women, you really rely on them to communicate to the audience that this is a worthy individual, this is a man full of goodness.

Ralph and I had this discussion about Doll Tearsheet, and Ralph feels very strongly about the tenderness in that scene, and I think he’s right about it. He wanted it to be loving. And again it’s a little like the flavor of the Hal relationship, that you can be loving and yet at each other and impatient with each other and joke each other in a harsh way about your genuine foibles. She says, “When are you going to patch up your old body for heaven?” And he says [Keegan here takes on a Queens Borough inflection], “Don’t speak to me like that, don’t talk to me like that, why are you talking like that, what’s the matter with you?” that kind of thing. But she’s also the woman he can say to, “I am old. I am old.”

I always love Shakespeare for his repetitions, his direct repetition of a line. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens every now and then. My two favorites are “I am old. I am old.” And “No cause. No cause.” That’s what Cordelia says in the reconciliation scene to Lear. And I always say to my students, “A lot of playwrights would have written ‘No cause,’ but very few playwrights would have trusted themselves enough to write it a second time.

Speaking of that, Falstaff has the most famous repetition line, “Banish not Jack Falstaff thy Harry’s company, banish not Jack Falstaff thy Harry’s company.” How did you approach that because that’s such a troublesome thing to read?

That is not at all troublesome. Actually, it is not at all troublesome in the moment because, remembering the context in 2.4, he’s performing Hal to Hal’s Henry IV. So my solution for it was that he’s still playing Hal in the speech “most kind Falstaff, true Falstaff,” but he’s also right on the edge of going back to being Falstaff, “And therefore valiant Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company,” and the second one is “You know who I am” and it’s really Falstaff as Falstaff. “Banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack and banish all the world.” So, to me, it was end of performance between the two. The first one is, “If you were talking to your father this is what you should say about me, that I’m all these things and so don’t banish him your Harry’s company.” The second one is, “You're going to be king and you’ve got to keep me close, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Plump Jack is all the world.” To me, I had no trouble with that one; it was a nice transition.

And I always loved the way Allysa Wilmoth (who next June will become my daughter-in-law, as it turns out) did the second “no cause”[in King Lear]. Because the first one, Lear can’t hear, he’s so racked with guilt over the way he’s treated her. So she says, “No cause,” and people say things like that as “You know, don’t worry about it.” But the second one, she has to get right into his eyes and say, “No cause, I’m not kidding you, I love you so much I don’t care about anything that happened in the past.” It’s a shattering thing. If it doesn’t make you cry, why have you not been paying attention? [Laughs] Because that should make you cry. That should make you cry. And it’s astounding, it’s the most Christian moment in the play in many ways, that I’ve erased all sins, I’ve erased all offenses, I have utterly turned the other cheek. It’s an astounding thing to me.

So the “I am old, I am old,” was the same thing. The first was—you know, you have to sort of admit you get accustomed to saying it—“Yeah, I’m old. I’m middle-aged now, I’m old now,” whatever. “I’m old.” And then suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks: “I am old.” And that’s not for anybody, that’s me suddenly admitting it to myself. So that was the great moment of getting that: “This is the way Doll and I always play, ‘You love me the best, you love me better than any young guys, and I’m old I know, I know what your profession is, I know what’s what, I’m not a dope, you know, I’m old.’” But then it’s like, “I am old.” And then she says this beautiful thing: “I love you better than any of those youngsters." And the next thing he says is, “What stuff wilt thou have a kirtle of?” He believes her immediately. Immediately. That’s why I think Ralph’s right about that, and I think the only way to play it is there’s genuine love between them.

And then we found the moment of the ruff in rehearsal, that Pistol had murdered her ruff, so it’s lying on the table there afterwards when I said, “Farewell, wenches” and I kissed Ginna as Doll Tearsheet. Then I would turn, and as I turned to go, I see the ruff on the table, so I would pick it up, hold it to her, it’s her favor, tuck it in my doublet. And every now and then we’d get a little vocal reaction sometimes from the audience, you’d get an “ahh” or somebody would register it and realize, that’s love, when you say I’m going to take a piece of you with me and that’s going to sustain me. So it was nice to find that in rehearsal, because it’s a little thing that only actors can find with each other. It’s not written in the text, you’re not told to do that, so those are the real special moments.

So only in Shakespeare would you have a very tender romantic moment between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet.

I don’t know about only in Shakespeare, but it’s part of the genius. And to do it the other way where she’s just a whore, she’s just playing him and she’s just driven by the basest of drives, that it’s all monetary and it all doesn’t have any depth to it—you can play it that way and I suppose people certainly live their lives that way, but he tells her to sit on his knee. There’s music playing for them in the background. I mean, this is the lady and the tramp, the scene is set up for this; he’s trying to be romantic with her and they speak truths to each other. They speak the deepest truths to each other. “You need to change your ways. Heaven’s coming, your death’s coming.” Only the people closest to you can get away with saying stuff like that to you. Nobody else has the right to it, but they’ve been intimate with each other.

But you mentioned where you could do it the other way, where she could be very cynical. You could also play it very slapstick, not that I’ve seen it that way; you said he’s trying to be romantic, you could do a very slapstick version of that.

I suppose so. Although he does say, “Sit on my knee, Doll.” Slapstick is hard to do from a seated position, you know.
[Laughs] But you feel the tenderness is integral to the character, the play’s emotions…
I think it’s in the text. I think it’s in the text. I don’t see how you avoid it.
…And the theme of his feeling old.

It’s interestingly assisted in some ways by casting, because Ginna Hoben is very pretty. So, if you cast a very pretty Doll Tearsheet, a pretty and young Doll Tearsheet, one then wonders what if you cast one just past her prime, and what if she’s not as immediately, standardly attractive as the audience would normally read, she doesn’t look like the stage version of Jennifer Anniston, which is who Ginna Hoben looks like. If you look at the BBC version [filmed in 1979]—to me you’re not going to see a better Falstaff in some ways than Anthony Quayle; he’s got a sense of that character.
He did it back in the 1950s, too.
Yeah, yeah, the guy knows what he’s doing. And it’s strange because it’s TV, so he gets a lot of closeups, so it’s hard to really assess what it would be like on the stage because he could go very quiet with his voice and he’s got the great burst blood vessels on his nose.
And doing a soliloquy while he’s peeing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great stuff, and I have great love for that performance—but in the Part 2, look at the Doll Tearsheet; she’s a horsey kind of unattractive woman, and she’s real sharp-voiced and harsh-voiced. Ginna has a voice that can have a real harsh edge, and she certainly may use it in that Pistol scene, but I think it’s very different to see someone [like Ginna] who looks physically like a romantic lead as opposed to someone who looks more like a broken-down whore. And I do wonder about that, what would happen. Because those are features of it, too, some of the decisions get nudged for you or assisted in casting. I used to play up her leg on one line, and I’d lift her skirt because I thought there had to be physical intimacy in there; he has to take liberties because he’s used to taking liberties with her and they would not be seen as liberties, so I want to communicate for the audience a sense of that; this is somebody he’s very physically comfortable with, he can reach up under her dress in a second, no problem. Because that’s what he does, that’s fun. When you uncover Ginna Hoben’s leg, it’s a helluva nice leg. So those are features of the play. The whole stage picture communicates everything.

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