Friday, August 15, 2008

1 Henry IV - Thoughts on Producing the Play

There’s a great deal to recommend 1 Henry IV for production: multiple interlocking subplots, vivid characters, and an underdog protagonist in Hal. In a day and age when we are desperately trying to keep Shakespeare relevant, this play seems particularly suited to engage a younger audience.

The coming-of-age story and the parable of the prodigal son are as relevant now as in the first or sixteenth centuries. I myself recall first seeing a production when I was a junior in high school. As both a spoiled preppie and rebel without a cause/underachiever, it was easy to cast myself in Hal’s place.

My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (I.ii)

And so I thought; perhaps my day was coming. As youths, striving to find a place in the world, we are often compared to our peers and siblings—who’s on honor role, who’s on the football team, or who can hold their liquor best? This even persists into adulthood—my mother, well into her seventies, still tells me about how so-and-so’s son is now a partner at a law firm, or so-and-so’s daughter is now a surgeon. So any of us can relate to Hal’s dilemma when comparisons are made to the valiant Hotspur. Not only is the sons’ role in the world contrasted, we are presented with multiple father figures including a contemplative Henry IV, a madcap Falstaff, and a prideful Northumberland.

Much has been said and written of Shakespeare’s contemplation of honor in this play and throughout the “Henriad.” Suffice it now to say that the nature of honor, in the sense of personal integrity, interpersonal relationships, and military endeavors is still relevant to our world and to our modern audiences. Given the relevance of this play to modern times, one is tempted to try a production in modern dress to make this more explicit. I wouldn’t (the Guthrie tried several years ago with mixed results). I have always felt that the commonality of the times is best demonstrated using a different time and place than current, not by forcing a modern setting on a Shakespeare play, which only seems to point up the differences.

The challenges of mounting a production of 1 Henry IV are not limited to finding someone who can speak Welsh. Falstaff looms large in our common literary consciousness, and it can be a daunting task to attempt the role. Part of the problem may be that people assume that Falstaff is going to be “funny.” And when I says “funny” I mean farcically funny, not witty funny or darkly humorous funny. In some cases, audience members may have seen a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, or have a recollection of Falstaff as a largely comic character. But Falstaff is so much more than a funny fat man. Going for the laughs may gloss over the deep pain and resentment that fuel his wit. A lifetime of failures, alcoholism, and social isolation lie beneath the jolly exterior. Choosing a darker take on Falstaff my not meet audience expectations, but as a director, I would certainly look for opportunities to let Falstaff’s merry mask slip and reveal the troubled soul underneath.

Whose play is this anyway? One challenge is not losing Hal’s story, which I consider the core of the play, to the various subplots. Both the characters of Falstaff and Percy are boldly drawn and make a major impression on the audience. How do we keep these two from stealing Hal’s show? As a director, I might use a few tricks to place additional focus on Hal, such as dropping him downstage (closer to the audience) in scenes with Falstaff, and playing some of Percy’s scenes isolated on one side of the stage rather than center.

The script is fairly tight as it stands. Reading through, I found few obvious cuts. Act II, scene i, with the ostler and carrier seems unnecessary, and serves little purpose forwarding the plot or theme. Likewise, the portion of Act II, scene iv, with the server Francis, only interjects another unnecessary character into an already crowded play. I would even argue that the robbery scene (Act II, scene ii), can be largely cut, since we later get a description of the events from the principals in scene iv. We might even get a better payoff on Falstaff’s outrageous exaggerations by not knowing all of the details of the robbery beforehand.

One exchange from Act I, scene iv, particularly stuck in my mind as a major touchstone for the tone of the production:

… No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

I do, I will.

In these four words, Prince Henry begins the process by which he will ultimately deny Falstaff and break with his followers. I see Hal looking Falstaff directly in the eye, and speaking with all of the weight of a king; we are left to wonder if Hal is speaking in the character of the king or as himself. Perhaps Hal then turns away, and we see Falstaff’s reaction. But there are other ways one could put this together. Falstaff could be distracted as he finishes and never hear the Prince, who speaks sotto voce to himself or as an aside to the audience; this might be more in keeping with Hal’s “I know you all” speech from Act I, but would make him seem even more schemer who is unwilling to show his hand. Hal might also say his line laughingly as if to lessen the impact, but would it?

Another key speech is the end of Act I, scene ii, the whole “I know you all.” My concern is that this makes Hal sound so much like a schemer. My hope is that the audience will like Hal and relate to him. Shakespeare makes his reformation sound premeditated. It would be a challenge to an actor to make the speech fresh—as if he is hatching his plan in the current moment, and justifying his past behavior in the context of his new plan.

It’s a wonderful play, and one that stands up well as a single work.


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