March 24, 2001: Shakespeare, King Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

Barbican. Matinee and evening. Royal Shakespeare Company. 3 hours each (including intervals)

I had been looking forward to seeing this pair of plays after having seen the RSC Henry V last Monday night. It’s a very unusual opportunity, seeing three of the four plays of the second tetralogy, if not entirely in historical sequence. Were I to be in London for a few more weeks, I would be able to see, not only Richard II, but the four plays of the first tetralogy as well. Lucky Londoners!

The four principal characters of Part 1 lose one of their number at the Battle of Shrewsbury. That leaves Henry, Hal, and Falstaff to be played in Part 2 by the same actors who had the roles in Part 1: William Houghton (Hal), David Troughton (Henry), and Desmond Barritt (Falstaff). They form a wonderful ensemble, these three, augmented by Adam Levy as a hugely energetic Hotspur, who possesses the ability to go off like a powder keg at the least provocation. Hotspur’s is not so difficult a role as that of Hal — or not so complex, at any rate. The actor’s challenge is to give us a character with enough charm, enough attractiveness, to make it plausible for Henry to wish him his own son instead of the truant to chivalry, his actual son Hal, while at the same time giving us a man who finally doesn’t know himself sufficiently well and so doesn’t reflect on his complex preoccupation with — chivalry, to draw the ironic parallel with Hal. So the keynote of Hotspur’s character is its single-mindedness, whereas the keynote of Hal’s is his inclination for risk-taking, coupled with a mental habit of nice calculation and an exquisite sense of timing. Underlying all of these attributes is a deep need to be taken as his own man, even though it gets him into great trouble with his father, who upbraids him for lowering himself by exposing himself to public view. Hal sees the big picture — as he unapologetically explains in his early soliloquy, whereas Hotspur has no perspective beyond his ambition, fueled partly by his sense of personal grievance with the king. The ironic parallels between the two young men have been pointed out repeatedly by commentators on the play. A good example: when Worcester upbraids his nephew for the second time over his hasty, ill-judged behavior, Hotspur’s only response is a surly “Well, I am schooled.” Nothing makes a dent in him. Whereas, in the scene between Henry and Hal (rehearsed in the tavern in Eastcheap), Hal’s response to Henry’s severe criticism of his behavior is to promise that henceforth he will be “more myself” — a promise he keeps.

This ironic parallel is carried out in the casting. William Houghton’s whole face is alive to the implications of all that meets his eye. We see his intelligence, his craftiness, his cunning, but also his moral probity. This is a man who will, finally, pay the debt he never promised. Houghton is a man of medium height, red-haired; not good looking. And when he smiles, there is a preponderance of the upper lip and a high turning up of the corners of the mouth that make him seem calculating even when he is clearly enjoying himself. Houghton’s Hal is like an expert actor, alive to all the nuances of the scene in which he participates, completely immersed in the “reality” of the moment and yet simultaneously ready and waiting for the cue to his next speech or movement. I can’t quite tell whether this is Houghton’s characterization of Hal or his manner as an actor. Whatever it is, it is just right for Hal. We don’t love him, of course; Shakespeare’s Hal can be likable, at best, but not lovable. But when he is on we watch him. Great presence, in fact, Houghton has.

David Houghton’s Henry is good to begin with and gets better as it goes. It’s a tough role because Henry’s troubles begin at the beginning and remain constant until his death in Part 2. And over this span of time it seems he is forever in poor health, and a complete stranger to a good night’s sleep. His lament, in Part 2 — “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” — is the keynote of the character, and it is sounded in the very opening line of Part 1: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care…”. Shakespeare’s audience may well have under­stood Henry’s malaise as evidence of a vindictive God’s punishment for Henry’s usurpation of Richard’s crown; Henry tends to feel that way himself (and Hal, as Henry V, prays that God will not visit on him, the next generation, the retribution he might well invoke for a crime of that magnitude). It’s little wonder that Hal is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. Houghton plays this dominant note of guilt and worry in its many variations.

We see it first in the first scene, where Hotspur throws a temper tantrum, refusing still to release to Henry the prisoners he has taken supposedly in Henry’s name. This is the scene in which Henry, in a rage, tells Worcester “Get thee gone.” He sees insolence and disobedience in Worcester’s eye — who could miss it? But he hasn’t quite made the connection with Worcester’s nephew Hotspur. Finally, all Henry can do is walk out in high dudgeon, having given Hotspur an ultimatum, not once, but twice. First: “Send me your prisoners”; then again, reverting to the monarchical plural, “Send us your prisoners, or you shall hear of it.” Houghton gets this exchange just right: we see him attempting to exert his power and realizing that he is not as powerful as he wishes he could be.

The scene — let’s call it the confrontation scene — between the King and Hal is a very well-written scene, all the more so for coming second after the antici­patory parody of it by Falstaff and Hal in the tavern — a brilliantly written scene in itself. Desmond Barritt’s Falstaff is the Falstaff we have all seen in our fantasies. A mountain of a man, addicted to sack, to lying — and to the pleasures of the Prince’s company. If we don’t get the sense that both Falstaff and Hal delight in their mutual company, all is lost — for the scenes in which they appear together and for the play itself. Oh, the voice, the twinkling eyes, the ruined face, the keen intelligence that is a match for the Prince’s — they are the two smartest (Britishers would say “cleverest’) persons in the play. The scene foregrounds Falstaff’s insecurity, born of the fear that it will somehow not last: all of that, and more, resides in this Falstaff. The two parts of the rehearsal scene for Hal’s encounter with the king: they get them just right. It starts out in a light, bantering tone, a delicious parody on the Lyly-brand euphuistic style, and then dead-ends. Hal, sensing it, then calls for the reversal of roles, and the tone departs from Lyly and King Cambyses’ vein and turns unexpectedly — for us, perhaps, and for Falstaff as well — quite serious. Falstaff is not stupid, and he picks up the shift almost right away. He starts the sequence as “Hal,” but as it becomes ever more portentous he becomes ever more his own, much worried self, now openly afraid of being banished his Harry’s company; and at the same time he is clear-sighted about what that will mean: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” The longest pause I have heard in a Shakespeare play follows, but meanwhile we can read what comes next in the Prince’s face and eyes. And when he says it, he says it in a deep, hoarse whisper, almost as if it doesn’t bear being said out loud — just yet: “I do … I will.”

Seeing both parts of this brilliant pair of plays in a single afternoon and evening makes it possible for us to prepare for the actual experience of plump Jack’s banishment, at the end of Part 2. And we are not disappointed. Part 2 is evidence of the great originality of the author of Part 1. It would seem as if Shakespeare is responding, in part, to requests to show us again Prince Hal and Falstaff in the tavern. But the bloom is off the rose; in fact, the canker is swiftly eating it up. The play is built on ironic surprise as an operating principle; reversal of expectations is the dominant dramaturgical mechanism. We can’t go back to the tavern of Part 1. Yes, Mistress Quickly is still there, along with a new character, Doll Tearsheet, a superannuated whore and a sad case, cast in this production unaccountably by a thirty-year-old actress (if that) in a risqué strapless gown. By rights she should be every bit as old as Falstaff, and as close to the grave. A false note in what is otherwise a well-played scene, with a reprise of the “Anon, Anon, Sir” practical joke at the expense of the drawer, Francis, in Part 1. But the fun isn’t half so great. Falstaff is “old, old,” by his own admission.

Aging is a dominant theme in the play. Henry is old and dying, and the new old character, Justice Shallow (and his even more aged crony, Shadow) are introduced to liven up the general gloom. Shallow is one of the greatest comic characterizations of Shakespeare. “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days we have had,” he recalls, his memory a busy generator of things that never happened. Shallow and Falstaff were, it seems, at the Inns of Court together, as Shallow insists on reminding him. “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” a forlorn and distinctly uncomfortable Falstaff grudgingly acknowledges. Desmond Barritt’s Falstaff is a morose contrast to the chipper, energetic, mile-a-minute talker of Benjamin Whitrow; busy, busy, always, cheerful, even when he discusses with Shadow the demise of so many of their friends. “Dead?” “Dead.” Well, there is a time for every man, and so be it. But Falstaff, unlike Shallow, is deeply troubled by his mortality. In Part 2 Barritt’s face has become even ruddier, and we see two dangerous-looking carbuncles on his forehead and jaw.

And so it comes as no surprise when the death of the king is announced, and the ascent of Hal as Henry V, and Falstaff finds himself summoned to London. Falstaff, despite his promises of preferment to all his cronies, doesn’t quite believe this bodes well for him. Even so, when a stony-faced Henry V sum­mar­ily rejects him — “I know thee not, old man. Look to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester” — Barritt’s Falstaff is stricken, in deep shock at what is happening to him. The Lord Chief Justice’s arrest of him seems an even crueler blow. Yet the director, Michael Attenborough, doesn’t emphasize the cruelty of Hal’s banishment of Falstaff; instead, he plays it simply and straight­for­wardly as the inevitable event it is. [Account broken off for lack of time.]


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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