The Falstaff character of Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV” is obese, “a huge hill of flesh,” lacking wisdom despite his age “vanity in years, and unchivalrous “a sanguine coward.”
Although a knight, he holds courtly ideals such as “honor” in utter contempt, “What is in that word?” Yet he is one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters – the favorite, for example, of Orson Welles, and in Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth herself.
Sir John Falstaff can be seen in all of this dubious glory in an impeccable production of Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV,” running through Oct. 13 at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In the play, Sir John Falstaff is the companion of young Prince Hal, the future Henry V. To the intensely personal and political displeasure of this father, the ruling Henry IV, Prince Hal (to quote from the Folger’s press release), “spends his days carousing in seedy taverns with criminals and lowly commoners . . . Winding from the Boar’s Head Tavern to the shadows of Gad’s Hill, Hal’s path to the throne may be unusual, but it eventually leads him to the one place where questions of honor and reputation come to a head: the battlefield.”
While many of Shakespeare’s history-oriented plays involve the battlefield, it is Falstaff, the best companion of young Prince Hal, that has made this work a favorite over the centuries.
The play is about dualities. First, there are the tensions between two influences on Hal: responsible father Henry IV and the incorrigible Ersatz-father-figure Falstaff.
Second, Prince Henry, the wayward carouser, is being confronted by another Henry, the would-be usurper Henry Percy (also called “Hotspur”), whose faction is challenging Hal’s father for the throne of England.
Though a sworn enemy, Henry Percy is actually respected by King Henry IV; the king views Henry Percy as a natural leader, while disdaining his son Hal. The king goes so far as to wish that the two younger Henrys had been switched at birth: “O, that it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle clothes our children where they lay . . .”
The acting in this production is fabulous. Peter Crook (King Henry IV) brilliantly portrays his character with a mix of authoritarian royalty and fatherly vulnerability. Avery Whitted’s Prince Hall is fun-loving, but at many times pensive. Above it all, Edward Gero is wonderful as Falstaff, at once gregarious, outrageous, immoral and, strangely, eliciting our sympathy. Gero embodies a character who is vivid and full of life, but not over-the-top; he also includes a bit of Orson Welles-like cadence in his voicings, perhaps an homage to Welles’ famous portrayal of Falstaff in the classic film “Chimes at Midnight.”
This is the first production at the Folger by Director Rosa Joshi, known previously for her productions of Shakespeare in America’s Pacific Northwest. In this production, she succeeds brilliantly in bringing “1 Henry IV” to life and also in carrying its themes over to our own time.
King Henry, for example, wears a modern military uniform, rather like a generalissimo. At the same time, he sports a traditional crown, so the audience is very clear who and what he is in Shakespeare’s original text. The battle scenes are also very effective, resounding with the sound effects and flashes of grenades and bombs, conveying the threat of modern battle, even though these were not used in the Battle of Shrewsbury!
Perhaps the most effective staging element is the king’s throne itself. When the king is not reigning from it, it is turned over to form a large table for the tavern scenes with Falstaff and Hal; this subtle highlight shows that the power of any ruler, no matter how authoritarian, comes from the will of the people themselves.
It also conveys clearly Hal’s dilemma over whether to follow his disdainful father and take his princely duties seriously, or follow the way of Falstaff, a man who is dissipated but fun-loving and alive.
Yet the limitations of the purely hedonistic life are also on display when Falstaff is shown to have taken advantage of war for his own political gain; a moment made all the more poignant by setting it in a modern context which calls to mind concerns such as “stolen valor.”
The Folger’s “1 Henry IV” is an outstanding production which shows that honor, loyalty, betrayal, cruelty and corruption in war are every bit as current now as they were during Shakespeare’s time. It also brings home the human tensions which can exist between fathers and sons universally.
Even for those who are not versed in English military conflicts of centuries ago, the play conveys to the modern audience the horror and loss of war, yet also the nobility of some of its players on the world stage, calling to mind Shakspeare’s famous phrase elsewhere: “All the world’s a stage.”