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Henry IV, Part Two

Hal's Story Turns into a Sher Thing

Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tuesday, July 8, 2014, "Live from Stratford-upon-Avon," Angelika Film Center Mosaic, Fairfax, Va.
Directed by Gregory Doran

He's a Pentecostal preacher talking about ascensions, about beacons of warning, about kingdoms of man, and about "nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit." His face flushed with the spirit coursing through his body, his voice attaining a brimstone pitch, he comes to the crescendo of his lesson: "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack."

Silence with mug in brown coat, vest, white beard, Falstaff with tankard in right hand, left hand on cane, Shallow with pen and paper in hand, formal red coat, all sitting on a hay waggon, a white ewer to one side, you can see a portion of Bardolph to the left and the page to the right
Falstaff (Antony Sher, center) regales Silence (Jim Hooper, left) and Justice Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies) with his wit as he drafts his army from the not-so-fine males of Gloucestershire in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry IV, Part Two. Photo by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.

Call this the Sermon of the Mount, Sir John Falstaff's soliloquy on the finer properties of sherry as delivered by Antony Sher in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two, at Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Some productions cut this speech as superfluous; those productions don't have the incomparable Sher playing Falstaff, nor do they appreciate this moment as the true apex of Falstaff's story. An alleged hero, a protected sycophant, wealth assured from his next scam, Falstaff uses this high point in his arc to spend 42 lines expounding on the virtues of sack with enough fervor to inspire "amens" and "hallelujahs" among the audience's laughter and applause, the next scene be damned.

Except that the next scene is the final confrontation between the dying Henry IV and his Prince Hal, the crown-snatching scene that is one of the most famous moments in the Shakespeare canon. The juxtaposition of these two scenes illustrates what is great about this play and what makes it difficult to stage. Falstaff hijacks Henry IV, Part Two, turning the sequel in the story of Hal's emergence from delinquent juvenile to conquering monarch into a play about Old Jack Falstaff. This is Shakespeare's doing, and using a text-centric approach, director Gregory Doran goes along (casting Sher as Falstaff was the first step in this strategy). Unfortunately, Doran lets the reins of Hal's over-arching story slip from his hands, which is all the more surprising as his Part One production, running in repertoire with Part Two, had so emphatically established Hal (played by the steel-steady Alex Hassell) as the centerpiece of the series.

In the Doran-helmed Part One, Hassell's Hal is concertedly preparing himself for his ascension to the throne, building street cred while plotting his moment of validity among the noble class. He speaks his "I know you all" speech as a matter-of-fact business plan, and then he sets about achieving his aims with coyness and confident skill.

This Hal has vanished in the Doran-helmed Part Two. To be sure, Shakespeare shares some of the blame for that. Hal doesn't show up until Act II, Scene Two; he engages in a lame prank on Falstaff; then he casts a "Falstaff, good night" over his shoulder as he rushes offstage to join his father—though we don't see him with his father for another seven scenes, during which time Hal is totally absent from the stage. Nevertheless, when he is on stage, Hassell's cocksure Hal of Part One has become an uncertain Hal in Part Two. We saw this production via the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast, and in a pre-play interview with Doran, the director points out that in this play, Hal is learning whom he can trust. That's a keen observation in that Hal sees clear evidence that his boon companions are not true companions—Poins and especially Falstaff are playing him. Perhaps that has shaken Hassell's Hal a bit.

Hassell turns in his most poignant performance in the crown-snatching scene. As the king (Jasper Britton) berates him, Hal appears crestfallen, a son who has worked hard to take his proper place, and in his mind he thinks he has achieved the good favor of his father but now hears otherwise and fears his moment of true reconciliation has passed. When he steps forward, kneels, extends the crown toward his father and says, "O, pardon me, my liege, but for my tears, the moist impediments unto my speech, I had forestall'd this dear and deep rebuke ere you with grief had spoke and I had heard the course of it so far," the mighty King Henry V has fully emerged from the wayward Prince Hal.

Well, maybe not yet. Hassell's Hal is nervous in his first throne room scene when he addresses his brothers (who, in this production, can't stand him, displaying both loathing of his person and jealousy of his place when they are talking to their father). His conciliation with the Lord Chief Justice (Simon Thorp) is overly formal and rather cold, doubly surprising as Doran had inserted Thorp's Chief Justice into Part One and even showed the epochal moment of Hal striking him, setting up what should have been a deeply moving scene here. In his public repudiation of Falstaff, Hassell's Hal is devoid of any emotion, unless it be tyrannical antipathy.

That, however, plays into the story's shift of focus to Falstaff. In an intermission interview on the cinema broadcast, Sher describes the character's gift of imagination and mastery of language, and he plays up both attributes in his performance. Even when he's not speaking, Sher's Falstaff shows keen-eyed engagement, taking in everything while his mind churns, concocting a new scheme or next clever comment. When he speaks, allegories burst forth, and his wit winds everybody who hears it around his little finger (even the Lord Chief Justice, who gets caught up in a volley of insults with Falstaff). In Shakespeare's time, the character achieved immense popularity in his first outing in Part One, but Sher displays how Shakespeare's creation really comes into his own in Part Two.

Nevertheless, Sher's knight harbors a real fear: old age (or, given that he's already old, older age). When Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) asks him, "when wilt thou leave fighting o' days and foining o' nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?" Falstaff snaps at her angrily: "Peace, good Doll! Do not speak like a death's-head; do not bid me remember mine end." At Master Shallow's house, Sher gets a moist eye and turns melancholic when Falstaff says, "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow." Shallow actually responds with tears: "That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have." Oliver Ford Davies is a sweet Master Shallow who seems astonished that all of his contemporaries are dying and growing old around him. In his mind, he is still 20 and at Clement's Inn, and every time he reminisces on one of his lustful escapades, his right leg starts shaking like a dog's when you scratch him in that special place. In Davies' playing, Shallow never totally lets go of those days when he was, in Falstaff's words, "lecherous as a monkey."

The play's infatuation with disease, along with aging and death, gets close attention in this production. The rebel Archbishop of York (Keith Osborn) harps on the kingdom's sickness under Henry's reign, and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet is pretty much a vehicle of disease. Northumberland (Sean Chapman), who had abandoned his son Hotspur in the rebellion of Part One, is all-too-obviously "crafty sick," but his feigned disease is representative of the moral decay in the kingdom.

However, the most obvious image of the diseased kingdom, in mind and body, is Henry IV himself. Hal may come to this play late, but the titular character comes to his own play even later, in Act III; yet Doran milks this moment with reverberating resonance. The King's first scene comes after Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet with Bardolph (Joshua Richards in another subtly perfect performance) depart the Boar's Head Tavern leaving behind the hostess, Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti, whose prattling manner is as musical in its way as Falstaff's witticisms). In Doran's staging, she falls asleep in her chair and a figure appears in her inn's doorway, wrapped in a giant canvas for a cloak—the rebels' map of England from Part One. It is Henry. "How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep!" he says, looking at Quickley and then continuing with his soliloquy hearkening for sleep. One line earns an unexpected laugh: "lull'd with sound of sweetest melody," he says, whereupon we hear Mistress Quickly snoring. But by the time Britton ends the soliloquy with "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," the tavern set has disappeared from the stage and we are in Westminster.

Henry only gets this scene and the Jerusalem Room sequence, but in those he has a total of five long speeches, all of which Britton speaks with cracking emotion, mentally wandering through guilt, hope, disappointment, anger, and, in the end, faith. In the last, offering Hal a dying king's advice on how to rule the nation, Britton wrests his character's play back from Falstaff.

Henry in bedclothes and robe on the floor next to his used bed points in the distance as Hal kneeling beside him in vest and white shirt holds his arm.
The dying King Henry IV (Jasper Britton, left) gives advice to his son, Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) in the most moving moment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two, at Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.

Doran's production of Part One is notable for its loud and physical staging; Part Two's volume is in its hair. Long hair or beards on the men is the norm. Falstaff's locks flow from his high forehead like a fountain into the trough of his curled-up whiskers. Master Silence (Jim Hooper) has a single tuft curling like a kewpie doll's atop his pate. Pistol's heaping coiffure and lava flow of a beard is one of the Seven Wonders of the World: cowlicks stick out of both like snakes writhing to escape a burning bush. His hair is louder than his demeanor and voice, which is saying a lot because Antony Byrne is excessively loud in both demeanor and voice, at one point even pulling down his pants and mooning the audience. Pistol is written as a Tamburlaine wannabe, spouting malapropian Marlowisms, which inform the character's behavior. Doran, though, pictures Pistol as a man with Tourette Syndrome. This interpretation not only misses the mark but is an insult to those with the condition, as Byrne is just plain manic in his portrayal.

But another interpretation, also played by Byrne, scores great dividends: Rumour. As the play's chorus, Byrne enters in work shirt and jeans (the rest of the cast wear authentically historic costumes courtesy of designer Stephen Brimson Lewis) and with a mobile phone. Twitter hashtags are projected onto the stage as he talks of Rumour as "a pipe blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures, and of so easy and so plain a stop that the blunt monster with uncounted heads, the still-discordant wavering multitude, can play upon it." He wonders why he need explain this "among my household" and spreads his arms to indicate the audience—many tweeters among them, no doubt—as Rumour's household.

This is RSC's third Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast, and the program is on a trend of diminishing returns. The first broadcast was last winter's Richard II (RSC Artistic Director Doran's first entry in his plan to stage the whole of Shakespeare's history cycle in the next few years), and the camera work was dramatic while yet replicating an in-theater experience for the cinema audience. Henry IV, Part One, employed more close-ups and singular camera angles, forcing our focus on certain characters at a time. With Part Two, the production unit seems to be striving for a fully cinematic experience, except when we see members of the audience in the background of a cross-stage shot. Because of this, we in the cinema audience miss out on much of what the theater audience experiences, both nuanced and significant.
In the scene of Falstaff drafting the Gloucestershire soldiers, after pricking Mouldy, Falstaff is still riffing on the fellow's name when one of the other draftees does something that causes the audience to explode into the night's biggest laugh. We don't see it because the camera is concentrating on Silence, Shadow, and Falstaff at the time. These cinema broadcasts are wonderful ways to see currently running plays that we couldn't otherwise get to, but in doing so we should be getting that theater experience, not watching a poorly edited movie. For a scene as wonderful as the Gloucestershire draft—one of Shakespeare's most comical concoctions, and this production's staging of it is the funniest I've ever seen—we should be allowed the whole perspective of the staging and not a forced focus. This can be accomplished and still be cinematically satisfying, as the RSC itself proved with Richard II.

Eric Minton
July 16, 2014

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