One thing I’ve always wondered about Shakespeare’s Henry plays is why do Hal and Falstaff like each other so much? I understand that Falstaff sees a younger version of himself in Hal, with better chances, and that maybe Hal sees Falstaff as a different kind of king, the ruler of indecent people. But their bond seems deeper than the camaraderie of kindred spirits. So what is it?
By the end of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of Henry IV Part I, I think I know: they see a kind of truth that other people don’t. Perhaps that’s why they lie.
Director Michael Kahn makes several choices in this production that turn my thoughts in that direction. The most conspicuous of them also seems to be the most straight-forward, at first: in Act 2, Hotspur gets a letter from an elder who rejects his call to arms and even suggests that rising up against King Henry is a bad idea. After reading the letter, Hotspur flattens it on the table and pounds it with his fist. Then he picks it up, and wads it up, and wipes his ass with it. The house erupts in laughter.
That gesture isn’t in the script. I thought it looked like something Falstaff might do, at first, but after while I changed my mind. In fact, I thought, that gesture shows how dissimilar those two men are.
Hotspur is a vehicle for refining our thoughts about Hal, whom we follow into the next play and the play after that (Henry V), but at the outset he looks more like the hero than the foil, and this production bolsters his heroic image. For example:
The back walls of the set are weathered wooden panels set at angles to each other. A green line runs across and up a couple of the center panels; it’s the silhouette of England. Halfway up the western panel, more or less where Wales would be, there’s a door that opens onto a catwalk which leads to spiral stairs that come down to the stage. The first person to come out of that door is Hal, the Prince of Wales. He looks like an imp. He’s forgotten to put on his pants, and his under-britches come down past his knees. A woman passes his pants through the door, and he drapes them over his shoulder before sauntering down the spiral stairs to the main stage, where Falstaff’s bed is rising through the floor. Falstaff is asleep, but Hal wakes him for a dose of witty banter, in his underwear. He crawls around on Falstaff’s bed before he puts his pants on.
The second person to come through that door is Hotspur, the man King Henry wishes were the prince of Wales. He looks like Brad Pitt. He has his pants on and his boots on, but he’s naked from the waist up, and the naked portion of his body is so finely crafted that looking at it makes you lose your train of thought. No more than four inches front to back at the navel, all six muscle packets on the belly standing out like cobblestones on a pathway leading to archetypal versions of the other muscles — biceps, deltoids, pectoralis maximus —as if their names were painted on them.
John Keabler, who plays Hotspur ferociously, has a thick beard that’s a color I associate with horses, roan, and in this production he wears dreadlocks, which are pulled back from his face and clipped behind his head. Matthew Amendt, on the other hand, the actor cast as Hal, has a face that looks like peaches — boyish peaches. We never see him with his shirt off, so we can’t be certain that his body is as boyish as his face, but it’s clear what we’re supposed to think: here is a boy, here is a man.
After Hal and Falstaff tease each other for a while, they get down to the serious business of life on society’s margin: highway robbery. Hal begs off at first, but later his friend Poins convinces Hal to help him rob the highway robbers, because what could be more fun that listening to Falstaff lie about how the money he stole was stolen from him? Thus the boy Hal’s all in on that.
Because Hotspur comes out that same door, half-dressed like Hal, and because we know that Hal was in there with a woman, we presume that Hotspur was similarly engaged. Except it wouldn’t have been similar at all; in fact, the emptiness we glimpse beyond the door suggests that Hotspur’s woman can’t get out of bed yet. Thus the man.
But it turns out he wasn’t with a woman: after he wipes himself, his wife, played by Kelley Curran with great passion, comes out a different door and asks what’s going on? Why have you banished me from bed, she asks? I can’t tell you, he explains, because if I do, you’ll know, and I don’t want you to have to hide that information or bear the weight of it.
Thus the man among men.
Which one’s better suited to become the king of England?
That scene is immediately followed by another kind of mirror imaging. Hal’s father has called him to the palace to explain why he’s been living like a bum, and Hal asks Falstaff to prep him for that confrontation with a little role play — during which I began to see that what the two men have in common is allegiance to a certain kind of truth. Or maybe I should say that I began to hear it, in the voice of Stacy Keach.
For the second time in a career of stage and film performances spanning more than fifty years and requiring an entire column of the playbill to describe, Keach is playing Falstaff, in parts one and two of Hal’s story. The first time he was only 27, probably younger than the boyish Matthew Amendt is now. “For this production,” Keach says in a backstage blog that he’s been writing for DC Theatre Scene, “I want to explore a side of Falstaff that I didn’t see clearly my first time around. I want to capture the sense that Falstaff subconsciously knows what is coming: Shakespeare presages the moment, brilliantly, later in that same tavern scene in Part 1.”
That’s the roleplay scene. First Falstaff plays the king, grilling Hal about his low life and the scoundrels he calls friends. “And yet there is a virtuous man I have often noted in thy company, but I do not know his name,” he says, and he goes on to describe himself in virtuous terms, concluding that “there’s virtue in that Falstaff; keep with him, the rest banish.”
Then they switch roles. Hal pretends to be his father, and his king is the mirror image — backwards — of the one Falstaff portrayed. “There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man,” he says to Falstaff, who’s pretending to be Hal. After Hal-as-king describes the haunting devil as a trunk of humors, a parcel of dropsies, and a bombard of sack, Falstaff-as-Hal defends himself, countering each of Hal-the-King’s accusations in terms that are comic on the surface but resigned below it — resigned to the reality about himself and the reality about his friend, who is pretending to exaggerate Falstaff’s unseemly qualities for comic effect, and in doing so he’s realizing that the terms are not exaggerated. Falstaff is those things, and he knows it, and we can hear that knowledge in his voice. So can Hal.
In another blog post, Keach mentions that in the film Chimes at Midnight, “Orson [Welles] approached Falstaff not as a braggart or a drunk, which was the convention at the time, but as a kind of self-portrait. His Falstaff was a flawed, impulsive person, with an entire lifetime’s worth of regret.” That’s who’s speaking in the tavern scene. By the time the role play ends, when Falstaff says, “Banish Jack and banish all the world,” it sounds like genuine advice.
“I do,” Hal says. “I will.”
Henry IV, Part 1
Closes June 7, 2014
Shakespeare Theatre Company at
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $110
about 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
That’s pretty much the same thing Hal will say on the eve of another battle in Henry V, after he’s become the king. He calls honor “ceremony” then, and he thinks it stands between him and the truth.
Men who say those things wouldn’t wipe their asses with suggestions that they think again about what’s right and good.
The only other character who seems to see the kind of truth that Hal and Falstaff see, ironically, is Henry, Hal’s father, the king. Edward Gero, in his thirtieth season at Shakespeare Theater Company, plays that role so brilliantly that even though none of his lines express the disillusion Hal and Falstaff feel, you see and hear it in him from the start. His first lines, which are the first lines of the play, come through the PA system: he thinks them rather than speaking them, while he stands alone on stage with his back to the audience, staring at the silhouette of England. It’s as if he doesn’t want to show the sadness in his face.
And this is only the beginning. I can hardly wait to see Part II.
Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Featuring Matthew Amendt, Bev Appleton, Brad Bellamy, Julia Brandeberry, Michael Crowley, Kelley Curran, Aaron Gaines, Chris Genebach, Edward Gero, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Rhett Henckel, Max Jackson, John Keabler, Stacy Keach, Maggie Kettering, Matthew McGee, Kevin McGuire, Ade Otukoya, Steve Pickering, Alex Piper, Jack Powers, Jude Sandy, Joel David Santner, Brendon Schaefer, Kate Skinner, Vanessa Sterling, Patrick Vaill, Ted van Griethuysen, Craig Wallace, Derrick Lee Weeden, Nathan Winkelstein. Set design: Alexander Dodge. Costume design: AnnHould-Ward. Light design: Stephen Strawbridge. Produced by Shakespeare Theater Company. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.