A prince sits disconsolately in a royal palace, alone—save for a stoic attendant. The prince tries, without success, to get a reaction out of the attendant by making funny faces at him.
Later, he sits at his father’s bedside, staring angrily and fearfully at the crown lying on the covers. He makes a face at the crown, and rebukes it for the weighty worries it holds.
The prince watches his former friends fade away from his life, as an image of England glows behind him—symbolizing a future of duty and difficulty.
These were some of the highlights of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV,” in which Matthew Amendt’s Prince Hal was truly the production’s strongest character. The company’s productions of Parts I and II are being played together at Sidney Harman Hall, and are worth seeing close together, I think, to help the watcher better follow the detailed plot.
Both parts must be understood within the context of their predecessor, “Richard II,” and within their larger tetralogy as a four-part series (“Richard II”, “Henry IV” Parts I and II, and “Henry V”). In “Richard II,” the king of England is deposed through civil war, and King Henry IV takes his place on the throne. But Henry is plagued by guilt over this past, and is determined to go on a crusade, to rectify any wrongs he may have committed in obtaining the throne. Unfortunately for his plans, an outbreak of regional conflicts force the king to stay at home: the discontent and discord quickly foment into rebellion. The main instigators of this rebellion lie within the Percy family, led principally by the young Henry Percy (nicknamed “Hotspur”), a noble but hot-headed young man.
Meanwhile, Henry IV’s eldest son Prince Harry (fondly known by his friends as “Hal”) is living a reckless, dissolute life under the mentorship of a fat and jolly knight named Falstaff. Though Hal knows that, at some point, he will have to take on the mantle of leadership and reform his ways, he is quite content to enjoy a carefree life with Falstaff and his tavern friends for the present. However, underneath Hal’s seeming jollity, there is a shadow of determination and brevity. Amendt captures this inner conflict brilliantly. He noted in an essay that his love for Prince Hal’s character started at a very young age: when he was seven years old, Amendt woke up to find half his face paralyzed. In the weeks of medical tests that followed, Amendt’s mother brought him comfort through an unusual gift:
My Mom, ever the good English teacher, in an effort to still the heart of a panicked, weepy little boy, introduced me to some plays she thought I might like. They featured a young Prince with two sides to his character, almost two faces, one could say, who struggles against all odds to live up to the expectations of the adults around him, who is simultaneously everything, and nothing, to the people he loves. The journey of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, from reprobate drunk to leader of the “band of brothers,” held me in thrall.
Amendt embodies this struggle, as Prince Hal develops from utter carelessness in the first act of Part I, to somber humility in the final scenes of Part II. It’s a remarkable development.
Falstaff is the play’s comic genius, a man who plays at the innocence of a child, yet uses others to his benefit at every opportunity. His relationship with Hal is an interesting and conflicted one—they esteem each other’s humor and quick wit, but there are moments when Hal is obviously repulsed by his friend’s deception and duplicity. Stacey Keach’s Falstaff is jolly and pouty, simplistic and conniving all at once. There’s a definite charm to this bumbling, bulging-bellied knight. He gives his lines with the air of a charmer, and captures both audience and fellow characters alike.
A note of disappointment: though John Keabler’s Hotspur was a noble and striking character, his intermittent temper tantrums felt forced and rather silly. This is probably a matter of personal taste, as other reviewers found these outbreaks entertaining and well-acted. But for me, this childishness did not flow well with the otherwise valiant purposefulness of Hotspur’s character. Hotheaded he may be; but kicking a throne with his feet and spontaneously pounding his fist on the ground? It seems Hotspur’s anger could have been demonstrated in a less silly manner. That said, his interactions with wife Lady Percy (Kelly Curran) were excellently portrayed. The sexual tension and intimacy of these scenes helped develop both our sympathy for Hotspur as a tragic character, and our sympathy for the widowed Lady Percy in Part II. Their dialogue and romance formed a significant highlight of Part I.
Edward Gero’s Henry IV, though his appearances in the play are intermittent, gives an impression of strength, duty—and heavy guilt. We see this guilt in the first scene of Part I, and watch it slowly build until his last breaths in Part II. It’s a pressure that hangs over his every scene, symbolized in the crown he wears. Gero’s character is kingly, indeed, and proves an excellent foil for Falstaff: whereas the former is all duty and honor, the latter is as cowardly and selfish as can be—and indeed, pronounces honor a mere “word,” an empty idea. We watch Hal swing from one father figure to the other, until his final reconciliation with Henry in Part II.
The play’s set—a towering wooden structure, completely unadorned except for its outline of England—felt a bit stark, especially in Part I. The addition of the tavern’s jolly makeshift lanterns helped, however, and the set’s outdoor expansion in battle scenes was quite impressive. Nonetheless, there was a decided lack of color: everything was monochrome, ragged, dishevelled. The costumes were delightful and well-assembled, but also worn and patched together. Perhaps this is meant to convey the feeling of a kingdom fraying, thrown together, struggling to survive.
Director Michael Kahn says in the play bulletin that this two-part series is his favorite of Shakespeare’s plays:
In my opinion, there is no other play in the English language which so completely captures the diversity of an entire world … It shows us fathers and sons and husbands and wives, it dramatizes war and its human costs, it shows us the terrible burdens of leadership and the fragility of a commonwealth wracked by regional and political differences. It shows us sickness and suffering, laughter and gaiety, life and death. This play for me is simply universal in every way.
True words. As both personal and family drama, Kahn’s team of actors deliver a “Henry IV” with personality and pathos.