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Why did Shakespeare name his play Henry IV, Part 1 after the King when the entire play revolves around the actions, deeds, and ultimately the journey taken by his son, Hal, the Prince of Wales? A much better title for play might have been “The Education of a Future King. ” Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions were, Henry IV, Part 1 stands out as one of the bard’s great histories, and the Shakespeare Theatre’s sparse production brings the compelling play to vibrant life.
Part 1 begins after King Henry IV (Keith Baxter) has deposed and murdered Richard II with the help of several important nobles, including Thomas Percy (Edward Gero) and Henry Percy (Gregg Almquist) and his son Hotspur (Andrew Long). The King feels a heavy burden about gaining the throne illegitimately by the crime of murder. But you surely wouldn’t know it by the actions of his son Hal, Prince of Wales (Christopher Kelly). He couldn’t be bothered with all this palace intrigue, being far more concerned with taking in the nightlife in London’s taverns, and plotting petty schemes of thievery. Among the amusing wastrels is one of western literature’s most comical and fanciful characters, Sir John Falstaff (Ted van Griethuysen), whom Hal both looks up to and yet also belittles.
Shakespeare creates two entirely different worlds, which collide in the character of Hal. He is the son of a ruthless, scheming murderous King, yet attracted to the carefree, gluttonous, raconteur of Falstaff. Program notes often identify Falstaff as Hal’s surrogate father, yet this is not entirely true. Hal has two fathers — the King and Falstaff — and two identities, allowing him a greater understanding of the conflicting nature of the human condition.
Director Bill Alexander’s production gets at the heart of this history play: What is the nature of leadership? Is how one’s leadership attained as important as leadership itself? And what makes a leader?
One could imagine a lesser directorial mind homing in on the play’s theme of illegitimacy when the current administration has served under the same cloud after the disputed election results of 2000. But Alexander wisely keeps the play set in its original time instead of updating to present day. The play speaks for itself, which is a far more powerful indictment of illegitimacy than any modernized vision a director could impose.
Christopher Kelly is one with the character of Hal. Playing the complex role demands such shift in character and temperament that it would strain many an actor’s range. But Kelly makes it look easy. A master craftsman at work, he’s able to capture the rare quality of nobility that courses through Hal’s veins, yet still allows him to turn into a scoundrel of the night.
With so much mythology surrounding the character of Falstaff, playing the bon vivant must be one of theatre’s most challenging and daunting tasks. Ted van Griethuysen takes Falstaff apart carefully, and rebuilds him without any of the over-sized, out-of-proportion ideas that often undermine the character’s actual identity. Van Griethuysen’s Falstaff is a slim-downed, Atkins diet version of this heavyweight persona. While some may yearn for a more uproarious take on Falstaff, this would be a disservice to the production. Falstaff is, above all, the great ironist of his time, and if he becomes too much of a cartoon, then the lessons he imparts are lost.
Hotspur and Henry IV, the play’s two other major characters, both pale in comparison to the complexity of Hal or Falstaff. Neither the rebellious Hotspur and scheming Henry IV don’t experience much of a journey in the play, with Hotspur solely focused on trying to gain power, and Henry IV trying to hold onto it. Hotspur is angry and volatile and Andrew Long knows just how far to take his rants. Acclaimed British actor Keith Baxter understands well how to play an evil King, fully allowing Henry’s deplorable aspects to simmer to the top.
The final fight scene between Hal and Hotspur is nothing short of eye-popping. Fight director Rick Sordelet choreographs a duel with such realistic intensity and ferocity, you become fearful that the knives will inflict actual damage to the actors.
Henry IV, Part 1 is only the first half of the story. (The Shakespeare Theatre is producing both plays, with Part 2 beginning March 16.) With this production, they’re off to a thunderous start, bringing to life one of the great historical chronicles of the Western Canon with a bold, focused simplicity that advances the great dialogue Shakespeare began with audiences over four hundred years ago.