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Henry IV

Tom Hanks as Falstaff; And Vice Versa

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, Japanese Garden, West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus, Los Angeles, California
Sunday, June 24, 2018, Section 3, C–303&304 (front center of deep thrust stage)
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

We paid $500 per seat plus fees to see the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA) production of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part One and Part Two conflated into one overlong production). That price was worthwhile in three ways:

  1. We supported the SCLA’s veterans outreach and employment programs for U.S. military veterans, including those who built the stage and staffed the production.
  2. We saw a theater's landscape used to maximum effect.
  3. We saw Tom Hanks play Falstaff.
Production photo of Falstaff weilding a bent, hacked swoard as Poins and Hal sit at a table watching.
Falstaff (Tom Hanks, right) describes how he fended off 11 men in buckram on Gad's Hill as Poins (Chris Rivera, left) and Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater) watch in bemused bewilderment in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV at the West Los Angeles VA Campus. Below, Henry IV (Joe Morton) nearing death gives Hal advice on ruling the country. Photos by Craig Schwartz, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.

When I mention seeing this production, the first question that comes my way is “How was Tom Hanks as Falstaff?” The query generally carries an attitude mingling hope with suspicion. Movie stars, even the most decorated (as Hanks is with two Oscars and three other nominations), seldom make good Shakespearean actors or good stage actors or, even more seldom, good Shakespearean stage actors. This being Hanks, who seems such a good guy and is unquestionably a pro, you hope he proves the exception.

I’ll answer that here right off. Hanks is a good Falstaff, a performance that reminds us he got his professional start with Shakespeare roles at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio: Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew, Reynaldo in Hamlet, Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Robert Faulconbridge in King John, and Fabian in Twelfth Night. No Falstaffs, to be sure, but he at least has the experience and foundational skills.

Nevertheless, I learned many Henry IVs ago that a good or even a great Falstaff does not a good Henry IV make without an equally strong or stronger Prince Hal or Henry IV. As larger than life a character as Falstaff may be, his part does not make up the sum of the rest of the play. For that reason, this production does not extend the “worth-the-cost” list beyond the three I list above.

So let’s go to items one and two in that list. Ralph Funicello’s set sits in The Japanese Garden on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus. Constructed by veterans, it is a thrust stage with bleacher seats on three sides, a backdrop of wood archways, and one wood chair and a table on the stage. On the ground between stage and bleachers are benches, stools, and chairs bearing red hats. It’s a perfectly functional, Shakespearean-simple set, but what makes it magically dynamic is the portion of the gardens we can see through the archways. A hill of shrubs, trees, and bamboo rises from the back of the stage and changes personality in the setting sun and Trevor Norton’s effective lighting design. The garden becomes an extension of the play space: it’s Gads Hill, it’s Northumberland’s orchard, and its Gaultree Forest, with John of Lancaster’s army emerging from the brush in the prince’s subterfuge against York’s forces.

The production starts with Falstaff walking on stage. Score one for much-credited Broadway and Shakespeare Director Daniel Sullivan: Hanks gets the obligatory “it’s him!” applause out of the way right off the bat without interrupting the text or flow of the play. Hanks being Hanks, in a show of humility he waves us off and turns to leave, thinks better of it, and returns to the center of the stage. There, he starts singing: “Nothing but eat and make good cheer,” a song from the Gloucestershire scene in Part Two’s fifth act. Much of the cast joins Hanks on stage to sing the song, and when Henry IV (Joe Morton) enters, the rest move down to the seats arrayed around the stage to listen as the king embarks on his opening speech, accompanied on stage only by his third son, John of Lancaster (Chris Myers), sitting next to Henry’s throne.

Morton gives a gnawed reading of Henry. He knows he’s sinned in how he obtained the crown, so he’s bullying his way through his reign just to get to the point where he can pass the crown on to his son by legitimate means, thereby legitimizing his own reign. Problem is, the most apt prince to receive this inheritance is sitting next to him in this opening scene, whereas the prince who is destined to receive the crown by the law of primogeniture is partying in the city’s red light district. At mention of Hal, the Prince of Wales, Morton’s Henry goes coniptive, and Prince John puts a comforting hand on his dad’s shoulder.

Another persona in this production who doesn’t particularly like Hal is Hal himself: or, if not actually Hal then the actor playing him, Hamish Linklater. With a resumé stuffed with Shakespeare roles on both coasts, including several acclaimed performances at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park in New York, Linklater plays the Prince of Wales as if he’d rather be anybody anywhere else. This is probably a character choice, given that he turns his self-revalatory “I know you” soliloquy at the end of his first scene into a rage. He seethes his way through imitating the sun emerging from clouds and how excessive holidays would become as tedious work and comes to his point: “So, when this loose behavior I throw off and pay the debt I NEVER PROMISED, by how much better than my word I am, by so much shall I falsify men's hopes.” He unleashes a lava of resentment as he talks of that never promised-debt, and a cynical snarl accompanies his intent to falsify men’s hopes. Yet, he comes across as not much more than an insecure brat and drunken lout.

This character choice works in his cynical mimicking of Hotspur, the rebel of the north and contemporary to Hal. Otherwise, Linklater leaves us with a mostly humorless Hal in a play that, despite being a history with battles and the death of a major character, is one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished comedies. The greatest victim in Linklater's interpretation is the love story at the center of the play. The only affection we see from Hal toward Falstaff comes when the prince gives the fat knight a hug at the latter's supposed death at the end of Part One. We get no palpable reason for Hal to be hanging around with Falstaff: Linklater's Hal doesn't seem to regard Sir John as a substitute father figure, he appears disdainful rather than energized by Falstaff's intellectual wit, and he couldn't care less about the hedonistic utopia Falstaff represents. The only thing Linklater’s Hal gets out of being around Falstaff is another somebody he can look down upon and bully. If this production were limited to Part One, this reading might work, but as a conflation with Part Two, we need a reason to care that Hal rejects Falstaff at the end.

Our empathy is stunted not only by the fact that Linklater's Hal never embarks on a journey of growth but also by the generally humorless and passionless tone of Sullivan’s staging. Conflating the two plays means cutting several key scenes, but Sullivan opts to trim the more comic scenes and characters, including Glendower and the Wales scene and Falstaff marching his ragged army through Coventry. Falstaff’s soliloquy on sack remains, but Hanks unfathomably delivers it as serious stuff, not a comic riff on one of his favorite iniquities. By the time we get to the climactic rejection scene, the three-hour production (plus intermission) has become a slog.

Raffi Barsoumian plays Hotspur with an unrelenting intensity that grows tiresome. He provides some comic relief in a line or two, but nothing to charm us. What the two Harries have most in common is that both are spoiled jerks giving us no reason to care; their climactic fight at the end of the first half is engaging only through Steve Rankin’s clever choreography. Hotspur's intensity is in his DNA; his Uncle Worcester (Josh Clark) harbors such pent-up anger that his left hand is constantly twitching, although Hotspur's father, Northumberland, played by the ever-steady Harry Groener, operates with studied deliberation, even in mourning Hotspur’s death. Barsoumian and Clark flip switches in their performances for the production’s second half. Barsoumian plays Pistol as a 1970s rock god sporting three daggars of varying lenghts in his belt, and Clark plays the Lord Chief Justice as a self-professed hoot, laughing at his own quips. Groener’s Justice Shallow, however, is diminished in comic carriage, and in keeping with the production's passionless tone, the Chief Justice’s appeal to Hal as the newly crowned Henry V is totally cut.

Production photo of Henry IV an Hal sittin on the end of a bed. This tone-deaf thematic environment undermines the Falstaffian essence of Shakespeare’s play. Ironically, that serves to emphasize Hanks’ true talents as a Shakespearean actor. Technically, he gives an accomplished performance. His Falstaff works the crowd while Hanks himself works his castmates. He is such a giving actor in his line deliveries and in his ensemble awareness (which makes Linklater’s aloof performance all the more frustrating to watch). Tom Hanks is so Tom Hanks we can forget the diversity of roles he’s played over his career, and his Falstaff rolls so much of that diverse talent into one fat knight. He cannon fires insults at Hal like Steven Gold in Punchline. He goofily leads the Gad’s Hill robbery like Josh in Big. He displays genuine love for Hal under his self-serving interests like Charlie Wilson. The production’s last image has Falstaff standing alone on a darkening, desolate stage after Hal’s rejection, waiting with the certainty that “I shall be sent for in private to him” like Forrest Gump looking for Jenny.

These are not tropes but an arsenal of skills Hanks employs in playing Falstaff. Yet, he achieves another exemplar level with Part One’s tavern scene. He displays bravura showmanship with the “monstrous lies” comprising his account of the Gad’s Hill robbery. He shifts through embarrassment and recovery to joviality and then frustration as Hal and Poins (Chris Rivera, turning in the night’s other most engaging performance) call him out. He proves a talented actor when he and Hal take turns playing out the prince’s upcoming interview with the king, Hanks imitating Linklater’s Hal and Morton’s Henry IV with devastating accuracy. The best adjective I can use to describes Hanks performance in this famous scene is Falstaffian. That’s worth the watching at any price.

Eric Minton
June 29, 2019

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