No hystery mere: writer/director Tom Mallan’s purpose is to take the most powerful story in royal English history – Henry of Monmouth’s growth from a frivolous delinquent into the greatest of Kings – as written by the greatest of playwrights, and turn it inside out. In Mallan’s version, the transformance of Hal the Wastrel into King Henry V was a tragedy, not a heroic romance, and he tells it not from the plains of Agincourt but from the cavernous Boarshead Tavern, where whores and drunkards cavort with the Prince of Wales. Except – they’re not whores and drunkards, but human beings, resolved to squeeze such joy and love as they can against the bitter cold and sea of endless civil war that is 14th-century England.
Does it work? Tarry with me a bit. The answer is complicated.
In the plains of Artisphere, Mallan has assembled a colossal burlesque, over which Sir John Falstaff (Christopher Henley) presides. Henley creates a character who exhibits the persona of two men so memorable their names have become adverbs: Falstaff and Oscar Wilde. His is a Wildean Falstaff, or a Falstaffian Wilde, full of wit and piquant observations. Like Wilde, and like Falstaff (the lines come from Shakespeare; they are merely transposed), he embraces as his virtues the things we think of as vices: cowardice, lechery, avarice, drunkenness, and – oh, let’s say it again – lechery.
He presides over a cabaret of nonsense like a meaty Joel Grey (Henley, a slender man, manages to capture Falstaff’s adipose by assuming a backward-leaning stance, as though his body was draped over that of a fat man.) It is a noisy, happy place, where the fancy ladies periodically break out into raucous song. Falstaff’s stooge Nym (Mickey DaGuiso, who is also the performance musical director; Art Levine directed music in the rehearsals) bangs out some cheery music (Raymond Bokhour, composer) on the piano. Joan Double (Anna Brungardt) plays the accordion and the violin, and Mistress Silence (Sara Barker) plays the flute.
They also perform satirical revues of the news of the day: the death of Richard II and Henry IV’s ascension to the throne; the soaring triumphs of Henry “Hotspur” Percy and, later, his gathering rebellion; and King Henry’s rage against the degeneracy of his son.
They do this in two ways: by assuming the roles in the front of the room, with cute costumes and props, and words crafted by Shakespeare, and through the medium of silent newsreels, shown overhead. Amidst them but a little apart, tuxedoed in the Edwardian style (the fine costumes, by Rhonda Key and Lynly A. Saunders, suggest a couple of different periods, but lean toward the Edwardian) is laughing Prince Hal himself (Jay Hardee).
We learn some things about Hal, and they will make it harder to bear when he leaves his place among his friends to become King. One of them is that he is gay, and profoundly, romantically, sexually in love with Ned Poins (James Finley). When he comes to Kinghood he will have to renounce not only his friends but his sexual nature as well; a King must have heirs. (Although there is no historical evidence that Henry was gay, there have been gay English Kings who married and had children – notably Edward II and Shakespeare’s own king, James I).
The centerpiece of the story Mallan has crafted from Shakespeare is a deep plot involving Justice Shallow (Frank Britton), reflecting the desperate effort of Henry IV (Henley, again) to shut Falstaff down, win back his son and – as we used to say, back in the day – make him a man. The famous malediction from Henry IV, Part II, (“This shame of yours conjoins with my disease/And helps to end me…”) works its magic, as it did in that play, and he turns his back on his friends to become King. For Hal there will be the glory of Henry V, but for Falstaff and the denizens of the Boarshead, there will be only sorrow.
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” E.M. Forster once wrote, and the thought clearly animates Mallan’s efforts here. The women who stage Falstaff’s revue of current events do so to make them not sublime, but ridiculous, parading around with cheap wooden props and applying Shakespeare’s poetry to what appears to be children’s games. At one point, Henry IV ascends the throne by stepping on Richard’s coffin; Richard gets out to give him the crown while reciting a self-pitying speech from Richard II, and thereafter the whole company emerges from the coffin like clowns from a clown car, culminating with Falstaff himself.
Does it work in deconstructing Shakespeare, and the values embraced in both parts of Henry IV and in Henry V? It’s a close call, but I would say not. Shakespeare himself understood the horror of war, and the appeal of turning one’s back on his country to hoist another ale with one’s friends. “Can honour set to a leg?” asks Falstaff, and he answers himself: “no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word.”Falstaff’s argument is funny because it’s true; the abstract principles which drive people to die for their country or for their causes offer no pleasure to the living.
So Shakespeare has already given Forster’s party its due, and has answered it with even more powerful rhetoric, and argument. It does not matter whether that rhetoric is recited by men or women, or what the reciters wear, or what props they use: Shakespeare’s words hit us where we live. It is impossible not to be moved by them, if the actors do them justice.
Consider, for example, Sara Barker, playing Mistress Silence, playing Percy. Hotspur’s fury and self-righteousness radiates from her like heat from a furnace, as the words require, and what I realize is not that his fury is ridiculous but that if Hotspur was a woman (as she could have been, in a different universe) I would want to see Barker play her.
Or Ashley DeMain, playing Ann Garter, playing The Douglas: she rolls her r’s extravagantly, to riff on the character’s Scottishness, but when the r’s are done she delivers the same menacing lines that Shakespeare put in the character’s mouth, and to the same effect. In fact, every actor gives every read the respect it is due, which is a tribute to Mallan’s honesty as a director. The perhaps inadvertent result is that he does not bury Shakespeare, but praises him.
The remaining question is whether you can enjoy The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V if you are not familiar with the Henry plays, or even if you are not a Shakespeare enthusiast. This is an easier question to answer: yes.
Henley continues the excellent work he has done all year, economically and incisively conjuring both Falstaff and his opposite, King Henry. Hardee does well with an even more difficult task – credibly guiding Hal from a playboy prince to his opposite, King Henry V, without losing the core of the character. Britton, who appears to expand his range with every new role, plays Shallow as a shrewd old man, and I bought it – though I believe the actor, himself, is about thirty or so. Joe Cronin is a resolute Lord Chief Justice; Barker, as I indicated earlier, is fabulous; and the gigantic cast (I count 33 in the program, including those who appear in the silent film) wheels around the stage with great grace and harmony, even when they are whacking the hell out of each other (Casey Kaleba is the fight director; Mundy Spears is the choreographer). If that appeals to you, I think you will like this show; and if you like this show, you may discover that you like Shakespeare as well.
The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V runs thru Dec 4, 2011 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.
The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V
By William Shakespeare; adapted by Tom Mallan
Directed by Tom Mallan
Produced by WSC Avant Bard
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours forty minutes, with one intermission