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An interview with a Falstaff

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Your comment about illusion; You’re referring specifically to the Henry IV plays but could also be true in Merry Wives of Windsor.

Oh, yeah.

He’s caught in an illusion of how he views himself. I always thought that we view ourselves as 20-year-olds. We think we’re still 20 or 21.

I still do.
I do, too.

I worked out with my son this morning, and I viewed myself like that the whole way until, right in the middle of the workout, I realized that he was 25 and I was 49. But I still finished.

Falstaff is the same way, he still sees himself as a young man.

He sees himself as a young man, absolutely. As much as he is getting it on with these women, it’s wanting to be loved, but he also talks about their money. He wants money. That’s what it’s about, he wants money so he can continue his lifestyle. That’s what he needs. It’s shallow and mercenary. He doesn’t want to love, he wants to be loved.

But I think in the Henry plays, he loves Hal. And that’s in there. Hal is not just a meal ticket, and the audience knows that because that moment of rejection wouldn’t be so devastating if this were just a meal ticket he was using. That’s why Patrick and I decided to embrace in 2.4 when he saw Hal. I said “I’m going to embrace you like you’re my son because I need this in this moment. I need the audience to have this; they have to know that you and I love each other.” And they’ll know it in the torment of each other, the joking back and forth, but they need to know it physically; they need to see this. That’s the way I feel about it. I don’t think it’s probably appropriate to the time. I don’t know that Falstaff would have embraced the Prince of Wales or would have had the right to do that. I did wonder about that when we did this decision. I wondered if, historically, this would have been possible.

One last question…
Let me say something to you before you ask me this. My ability to answer any of these questions is in part an illusion. There are ways in which I know this character that I can’t articulate. Doing it on stage, there’s no way to describe what it is to me. That sounds kind of bland. I hate the way that sounds, but anything I articulate now a lot of times are realizations after the fact. I enjoy doing this interview because it makes me think about a thing intellectually that I thought about sort of physically. I don’t know if that makes any sense. When you’re acting the play, at least for me, I’m just in it. So I release a lot of the thinking about it at that time. I’ve written about a performance and I’ve found this to be strange. I mistrust myself as to what I’m saying now that I think about it and what I actually thought in the moment.

I understand that. But this is also a reflection of how it all worked.

Yes. I felt that it worked.

Or this may not have worked as well and we could have done this.

Yeah. Like the Gads Hill robbery. I never liked that. I just thought we never got it. Never got the blocking of it, never got it to be as funny as it should have been. Just didn’t work for me.

I’d think it would be difficult on [the Blackfriars] stage.

Very difficult on that stage, but it was written for that kind of stage, so that makes me wonder, what the hell are we missing? The touring troupe’s version of it in 2004 was brilliant, because it was in slow motion and it was hilarious to a Chariots of Fire kind of song behind it, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. To watch people slowly bounce off Falstaff’s stomach, hilarious stuff, hilarious. But, of course, I don’t think Shakespeare had the cinematic effect of slow motion, I don’t think Shakespeare would have done that.

He wouldn’t have even thought about it. Well, my last question, based on what you just said, is not as stupid as I thought it might be. I had written, based on your Merry Wives performance: “Keegan so believes in his Falstaff as Falstaff believes in himself.” Is that an overstatement?

No, the greatest thing about doing that role is to be in love with the character you’re playing and to believe in him. That’s what I was trying to communicate to you about the speeches in Part 2: that the love of Falstaff that I had in Part 1 sustained me in those moments in Part 2 where I felt I wasn’t as connected to the audiences as I would have liked to have been; there wasn’t the same interplay. I still felt like, “I’m Jack.” And Jack can talk to anybody anywhere at any time.

I wrote this about Merry Wives, which means I saw it in you on your first Falstaff—when you were giving soliloquies about how you will do this and do that, this is somebody who believes he can.

Oh, yeah. He’s heroic in that respect. He really does believe in himself. And he believes he’s right. Honor, don’t talk to me about honor.

But is that part of the key to playing Falstaff is to not ridicule him as an actor but to be…

Well, if you ridicule Falstaff as an actor, you’ve missed the whole point. You don’t love him, for one thing. You can’t ridicule the character you’re playing, even if it’s the deepest, ugliest kind of villain. People say “find the love,” but there’s a truth in it. There’s a truth in that. I have to understand him, I have to believe in his motivation, whether it’s Iago, whether it’s Lear. I think Lear believes in his heart that when he divides that kingdom, he is doing the right thing. He’s an egotistical, foolish old man who is not able to admit his folly and his age; he only admits his age to the degree that it suits him. And Falstaff, he’s sure he’s figured it out, he knows where the BS lies, and all you’ve got to do is enjoy your life and align yourself with the right person and you’re going to be OK. Because it’s all a matter of who you know. It’s not what you know, it’s not how brave you are—you know, “There’s honor for you: it’s a dead body. You want honor, you want to look at honor, there it is: object lesson. Because that’s what it will bring you to.” He’s not wrong about that; the hard pursuit of honor will bring you there. I mean, there’s a lot of people who take pride in the fact that they are willing to make that sacrifice. Falstaff isn’t one of them. And you’ve got to respect that point of view, too. Some people would call it cowardly, some people would call it sensible [laughs]. It makes him very skeptical about heaven, too, I think. I suspect he is something of an atheist. This is the life. This is the life you’ve got and you need to be happy with it.

Our epilogue was the moment where—you know, what a gift to be able to express to the audience how much I loved Falstaff and how much I am connected to Falstaff. And to do a little bit of stage magic to get out of that fat suit and come out with it—of course, it wasn’t the same fat suit, it was the Merry Wives fat suit—which was another beautiful part to it for me because I had all of my Falstaffs with me on stage in a sense, and then when we found it could kneel by itself on the stage, it was just like this wonderful discovery. I say, “I kneel for you” and I put him down and he kneels, so I am him, he is me, this has always been true the whole time, but now you see we’re completely separate from each other and it’s an illusion. You’re in love with somebody who has never existed. He doesn’t exist, and you’re in love with him.

When we opened the show, my mom was dying that night in New York, so it was particularly poignant that night. She hung on until the next day so I got to say goodbye to her, but for all I knew she was gone. In fact, I even went like that [crosses himself] at the end because I thought she took a sharp turn that day and there was no getting to New York on time, we thought, so I said: “I’ll stay and do the show.” I’d seen her a few weeks before. But it made all the age stuff and made it all so deeply poignant. And then Ben had come up with that song “The End of the Movie” that I sang at the interlude, and then we reprised the tune so I could dance with the costume at the end. The idea of waltzing with myself, waltzing with Falstaff—for the actor that’s what it is: the role comes in, you waltz with it a bit, and you leave it, and pass on to the next thing. And I left it on the stage, took my bow, and left. Poetically, it was just terrific.

And part of that’s the fact that you did all three Falstaffs.

That’s what the sense of it was, yeah. I had done all three and if I ever get to do them again, I’d be delighted, but I’ve gotten to do all three and I could say goodbye to the role, for now anyway. It was so poignant in so many ways. It’s just a gift; it will be one of my great memories for all time.

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