Heavy Lies the Head: “1 and 2 Henry IV” | 2014 Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare-Festival-2014However successful you find the mash-up of the two IV Henrys, it is ambitious and admirable for the Festival to undertake the whole Bolingbroke story.

 

 

 

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What’s a king to do? His son and heir (though he has three others, in early 15thth century England, as now, the eldest is next in line) is a wastrel. His father’s namesake, young Henry Bolingbroke, called “Hal” (Jim Butz), hangs out with bad company, spending most of his time down at Mistress Quickly’s (Kari Ely) establishment in Eastcheap, where drinking and whoring are the primary activities. His father may preside over the country, but Sir John Falstaff (Tony DeBruno), often called “Jack,” is king of the thieves, tipplers, and trollops who surround him. And Hal loves it all. Historically, he is 16 years old when the play begins, and though the character has no age, Hal certainly behaves like a truculent adolescent. So begins the 2014 Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis’ Henry IV.

Hal’s father Henry IV didn’t inherit the throne; however, he took it after his predecessor and first cousin Richard II removed him from the line of succession. Lots of usurping was going around back then, and Shakespeare was a playwright who served at the pleasure of the Queen. So, if it was necessary to bend the facts here and there to justify Tudor occupation of the throne in Elizabeth I’s day (about 200 years after the events depicted here took place), that was what he did. Shakespeare also took from this source and that, jamming them all up together with nary a footnote. And that is what director Tim Ocel has done here, for the two IV Henry plays are conflated into one three-hour production. 1 Henry IV is a very good play; 2 Henry IV is less so. Ocel happily realizes this and takes most of his adaptation from the first part. There are some events necessary to move the audience into Henry V, though, which means that the death of the King and the turn away from Falstaff and toward his responsibilities that Hal abruptly makes when he accepts the Crown must be there.

Both these plays are part of a tetralogy running from Richard II, the York from who the Lancasterian Bolingbroke snatched power in the seemingly endless Wars of the Roses starting in the late 14thcentury, and the three Henry plays. As it happens, they were recently broadcast by the BBC under the umbrella title The Hollow Crown, and are available for streaming, if you’re interested. I think it’s safe to say that Henry V is by far the best known and also the one that most easily stands alone. In fact, at the very end of Henry IV, a character says “Now it’s on to France,” or something like that, setting us right up for the young Henry V to get his nose out of joint over the Dauphin’s gift of some tennis balls. But that happens next week.

Here, we have a noble King (Michael James Reed) at the peak of his powers when we meet him, and the Percy family who had helped Henry gain the throne is mounting a rebellion. They believe that their contributions to the overthrow have not been sufficiently rewarded, and now they can’t be talked out of releasing the prisoners they took during recent fighting against the Welsh and the Scots in the south. The King tries to reason with them, but it doesn’t work out. Urging his kin to action is young Sir Henry (yes, I know there are a lot of them) Percy (Charles Pasternak), called by the appropriate nickname “Hotspur,” for he is a hothead indeed. Whether he takes it out on his horse, I don’t know, but he certainly does seem so energetic that he’s almost insane. His father Henry (that name must have been the “Michael” of its time) Percy, Earl of Northumberland (Joneal Joplin) and Hotspur’s wife, Kate (Dakota Mackey-McGee) are worried that he’ll be hurt. Meanwhile, King Henry wishes his party-hearty son were more like Hotspur.

Falstaff is become a second father to Hal, and not a very good one. At one point, they set up a mock scene in the tavern where Falstaff mounts a “throne” and Hal swears fealty, then they change places and Falstaff does the same. Interestingly, this is the beginning of Hal’s turn toward his royal responsibilities. Also, the interactions echo the real father-son relationship in its mutual dependence. But to Falstaff (whose name begins with “False,” after all), promises have no meaning and his lies and boasts are lingua franca in his world. Hal does play a good joke on him that emphasizes the fact that while the subject of the play is serious, it is certainly not all played solemnly. There is a lot of humor and Ocel finds it, making for a much more entertaining evening than it might have been. Falstaff’s other friends include Poins, Hal’s best buddy (Andrew Michael Neiman); the dim bulb Bardolph (Alex Miller); and the somewhat cannier Pistol (Jerry Vogel) who all add to the humor.

Negotiations continue to be futile, despite the blandishments of Sir Richard Vernon (Chauncy Thomas) who is a negotiator on the Percy side, as is the Earl of Worchester, Hotspur’s uncle (Anderson Matthews) who later receives a peace offer from the King, but doesn’t tell anyone because he supports war. A vicious enforcer for the Percys, the Scotsman Archibald, Earl of Douglas (Alex Miller) cuts a swath through combatants at the ensuing Battle of Shrewsbury, and Hal saves his father from the Scots’ sword, only to watch him die in bed after an unspecified period of time. Falstaff plays possum during the fighting and angers Hal by refusing to give the Prince his sword, but then tries to claim that he killed Hotspur when Hal did (in an especially exciting and well-choreographed sword fight), but Falstaff’s fortunes are about to fall. He has run afoul of the Lord Chief Justice (Gary Glasgow), a voice of reason throughout, and then he is not only rejected by Hal, but banished with the threat of death if he is to come within 10 miles of the newly crowned King Henry V.

Between the end of the battle and the confirmation of the young and recently sober King, things get a bit awkward. Henry IV is in a supposedly in a terribly weakened state, but he manages to give Hal a very energetic “Go Get ‘Em, Tiger” speech. Hal has whined all along that his father likes one of his brothers best, but they are so incidental to the action that I didn’t manage to sort them out until they were gathered for Hal’s coronation. The dealings with Falstaff are poignant and necessary because old “Fat Jack” is likeable, even though he is no better than he has to be. However successful you find the mash-up of the two IV Henrys, it is ambitious and admirable for the Festival to undertake the whole Bolingbroke story. And if you’re worried that your knowledge of English history isn’t enough to understand what’s going on, as so often happens in Shakespeare, you already know this story if you are at all acquainted with the House of Bush led by a war hero father to be succeeded by a reformed playboy son. Granted, that’s not a perfect comparison, but it is close.

In his director’s notes, Ocel uses the word “incline” twice, as in the play being in part about making the “world less inclined to chaos” and that “the future inclines to those who believe in a forward moving energy.” The slightly canted simple set by Scott C. Neale reflects these statements. The costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis are terrific, and I’m always happy to see Shakespeare’s plays set in their periods—a necessity with most of the history plays—because the characters look so regal striding about and whipping their capes every time they turn around. The only technical issue I noticed, and it may also have a reason due to the vast spread of the audience in the Glen, is that some of the actors’ voices were slightly distorted by their microphones. The music by composer Gregg Coffin was suitably epic.

Overall, Jim Butz is a fine Hal, and it will be interesting to see him continue the role in Henry V opening next week. Reed’s character may bear the title, but it isn’t his play, and I didn’t sense as much power emanating from him as I would have expected. Pasternak is fine, but he seems to be in need of a dose of Ritalin here and there because he does a great deal of shouting and hopping about. Possibly that performance decision may have been made by Ocel to demonstrate what a hothead he truly is. DeBruno, coming in with 22 years experience as a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a brilliant Falstaff. After all, he and Hal are the center of this piece, and the center holds. | Andrea Braun


The Shakespeare Festival runs in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park through June 15 with two opportunities to see both plays in one day. Otherwise, they alternate once “Henry V opens. Visit the website for tips to make your visit more comfortable and enjoyable: sfstl.com. Admission is free.

Photo by © J. David Levy

 

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