Oh, what a wonderful story this is, the apparently fictional but well believed and beloved account of England’s greatest King, when he was but a drunken sot, the scourge and embarrassment of his father. And what a magnificently powerful job Folger does with it, thrusting us through four-hundred-year-old dialogue into a world almost two hundred years older than that. From the first moment the air is full of the awful uncertainty of that unstable age, at the dawn of the War of the Roses, and the stakes are unmistakably high.
It is dark in the great castle, and the King (Rick Foucheux) is troubled. His English crown, won so recently through bloody battle, is at risk from troops led by the Welsh mystic Owen Glendower (David Bryan Jackson) and by Douglas (Mark Krawczyk), the fearsome Scot. To the West, Glendower has captured Mortimer (Marcus Kyd), the son of the King’s ally Northumberland (Brian Hemmingsen). But in the North, great news: Northumberland’s other son Hotspur (David Graham Jones) has slain a slew of Scots, and captured their leader. If only he could have a son like Hotspur, King Henry cries, instead of the lamentable Hal (Tom Story): a drunken fop, prone to foolish behavior with disreputable friends.
Hal hears all this, on a ledge fifteen feet above the monarch’s chambers. We see him, though the King does not. He yawns; stretches; shakes his head; he has heard this all before, a hundred times or more; and he does not give a fig for it. His father’s problems are not his own, and he longs only for another night of carousing with his good friend Ned Poins (Matthew R. Wilson) and with Peto, Gadshill, Bardolf and the magnificent buffoon, Falstaff (Patrick McAndrew, Karwczyk, Steve Beall and Delaney Williams, respectively). Soon the King departs, and the heir apparent drops down to the ground, whistling the sound which will call his friends for another night of dangerous stunts and hard drinking.
Foucheux’s Henry has the gravity of a planet, and we can see that his every utterance is the product of exquisite calculation. Hotspur’s uncle Worcester (Jan Knightley) calls him “political” and we see it; and know it has been his salvation. Story’s Hal, on the other hand, is lighter than air, and as evanescent as a bottle of apple wine drunk on a beach on a summer’s evening. It is as though he is trying to escape his father’s pull to land in some other place, where good Sack is substituted for war, and political machinations are replaced by merry pranks.
But life is real and earnest, and victory has the consistency of jelly, in history as well as Shakespeare’s histories. The captive Mortimer marries Glendower’s daughter (Kaitlin Manning) and switches sides; Northumberland and his family fall out with Henry over a dispute concerning Hotspur’s prisoners. Hotspur, previously the greatest of Henry’s generals, now sets out to remove him from his throne, and Douglas, Hotspur’s erstwhile captive, becomes his ally. In desperation, Henry finds that he must turn to his clownish oldest son. An ambassador of the King finds the Prince at a tavern and delivers the message, and Hal and Falstaff take turns in mocking rehearsal of the anticipated meeting between father and son. But Henry IV, when he is finally reunited with his dissolute son, delivers one of the finest speeches in all of Shakespeare, and Prince Hal is forced, almost against his will, to see the true state of things, and to recognize the role than only he can play.
Shakespeare tells the story through three lenses – the King’s, Hal’s, and Hotspur’s; the three points of views merge in the battle at story’s end (set designer Tony Cisek boxes the action between three magnificent metallic-looking walls; half-crushed columns and other debris lie about the scene to show the reach of the war’s instability and danger). What distinguishes this production is the vividness of Hotspur’s tale, made so by the superb quality of the actors who are in it. I begin with the incandescent Jones as Hotspur himself, as radiant and charismatic as a young god. Hotspur is a sort of anti-politician, whose tart honesty would have portended a short, unhappy reign had he managed to overthrow Henry, but it is impossible not to enjoy it while he is among us. His acidic dialogue with the self-important Glendower is one of the great pleasures of the second act. Speaking of which, Jackson’s brief turn as the Welch magnifico is also delightful. He says his ridiculous lines with deadpan seriousness, making Hotspur’s rejoinders all the funnier. Krawczyk is also terrific as the carnivorous, practical Douglas, an ally more to Hotspur’s liking.
Manning, as Mortimer’s wife, speaks exclusively in Welsh, and her dialogue with Glendower is all in that tongue. Not having the language myself I cannot judge her accuracy (the text merely says “The lady speaks in Welsh”) but it sounds authentic, full of vowelish grace. Later, in sweet voice, she sings a beautiful Welsh song to her grateful husband.
The magnificence of the Hotspur scenes are not at the expense of the rest of the play. We tend to think of Falstaff as a hardy baud, as if a bottle of Falstaff beer had come to life. Williams gives him a much more subtle and complex personality; he is an old man, living a life of desperate improvisation. Like Henry’s, his wheels are turning all the time; like Henry, all options, including theft and murder, are on the table. Little by little, we see that Falstaff is a small-scale Henry, and the sneering apprenticeship which Hal serves to him foreshadows the blood obedience he will later give to his father. It is a challenging interpretation, and it takes some getting used to, but by the end it is satisfying indeed.
This is the best work I’ve ever seen Story do, by a substantial margin; by the end of the play, he owns the role. Foucheux, too, does very fine work in the title role. This is the first time I’ve seen him do Shakespeare and I hope I will see him again, many times. In general, the talent pool in this play is amazingly deep; Wilson, Kyd, Beall and Christopher Dinolfo as a dimwitted serving-boy carry out their roles with great panache. It is normally not a good sign when a reviewer praises the technical staff, but there are a couple of elements which contribute to this successful production: Casey Kaleba’s fight choreography, in particular the final battle between Hal and Hotspur on the Folger’s small stage, and the uncredited makeup, are wonderful.
In the three-hour passage of this play, we literally see English history being changed, and the beginnings of the man who would some day become the glorious King Henry V. Those who saw 1 Henry IV performed for the first time, probably around 1596, would have understood its significance. Thanks to the Folger’s production, we can see it and know it too.
Running Time: 2.55, including one intermission.
Where: Folger Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington
When: Tuesdays through Sundays until November 18. Fridays and Saturdays are at 8; Sundays are at 7; all other evening shows are at 7.30. There are also matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2. There will be no performances on Tuesday, November 4.
Tickets: $25-$55. Call 202.544.7077 or go to the website.