Reviewed by G.L. Horton
All this precedes the speaking of the first line of Shakespeare's verse. But as the disposition of the prisoners and ransoms resulting from this battle will be the issue over which King Henry the Fourth and the Percy clan, which includes Harry Hotspur, part ways, it is indeed helpful to have seen the contending nobles in action before they are the -- unseen --- subjects of the quarrels and speculations of the court in Act One Scene One. The prologue is also a demonstration of Shakespeare and Company's great depth and strength: emotional commitment and physical prowess. A dozen duels and skirmishes erupt, any one of them worthy to be the centerpiece of a less lavish production. When "action" has replaced character and narrative in popular entertainment, and everyone who watches television or goes to the movies is perforce an expert on hand-to-hand combat, it is astonishing just how impressive fight director Tony Simotes skirmishing soldiers can be.
KING HENRY THE FOURTH , Part I is the first of Shakespeares history plays to occupy the Mainstage at Shakespeare and Company. Besides Simotes and his assistant, Edward Eaton, there were five other directors at work: Tina Packer and Kevin Coleman, assisted by Rebecca Holderness and Elena Parres, plus Susan Dibble for movement. Direction by committee sounds like a recipe for chaos, yet the production was notable for its vigor and clarity, and for the way that the "history" scenes took the foreground while the comic scenes of low life with the Boar's Head Tavern crew are kept firmly in place with all the "lessons" and parallels to the court underlined and digressions banished. "Henry the Fourth" is presented as a play about honor, the honor in question being a specific and restrictive code of manliness. Courage, loyalty, enterprise, excellence, strength -- these are the virtues young men like Hal (Allyn Burrows) and Hotspur (Dan McCleary) must not only cultivate, but put on public display through a series of rites of passage, the most important of which is trial by combat. God defends the right -- so might proves right. The reward is the approval of the patriarchs, and --at least for the heir to the winning side -- the Kingdom, power, and glory.
Both Harrys have seriously flawed fathers. King Henry IV has a shaky title, having come to the throne by usurpation from his Plantagenet cousin, Richard the Second. Malcolm Ingram doesn't make the man likable, but his flaws are familiar ones. Successful businesses and dysfunctional families are often headed by men like Henry. As rebellious Bolingbroke, Henry maintained that Richard's flaws of character made him unfit to be King -- and now his own son Hal, whose claim to the succession (Richard II having died without issue) should be persuasive, is showing signs of character flaws far worse than Richard's. Henry responds with self-righteous anger and self-pitying whines --not a trace of anything that could be labeled loving parental concern.
Hal shuns his father's court and spends his nights in debauchery with commoners and criminals in the stews of Eastcheap. King Henry is afraid his heir's behavior is God's punishment on him for his sinful snatching of the crown -- and indeed, it is a kind of judgment. Both the Harrys, Hal and Hotspur, are intelligent enough to recognize the occasions when their fathers are wrong, but there is in the world of the play no other source of loyalty and value. Hotspur is the only man whose wife is present and attempts to talk sense to him, (Mortimer's wife can't talk to him all, she speaks only Welsh and he only English. Talk about a lack of communication) but as a matter of masculine policy Percy refuses to listen to her or answer her questions about what he is doing and why he is doing it. Ann Podlozy radiates such sanity as Lady Percy that you wish she could send her bad boy to his room and forbid him to come out until he promises better behavior. Both Harrys are motherless, and their fathers see them simply as weapons in their ongoing battles for power and prestige. In this regard, Hal is such a disappointment to his father that King Henry wishes aloud that he could exchange sons with Northumberland, and be the father of the valiant Harry Percy instead. Hal retaliates by adopting the old reprobate Sir John Falstaff as a father-surrogate -- in the person of Jonathan Epstein, the same Falstaff as in last season's Wild West "Merry Wives of Windsor", but here transposed to a melancholy key.
This Falstaff is sure that he is necessary to the slumming Prince, but unsure of precisely why. Certainly Allyn Burrows' Hal has at best a love-hate relationship with one he sees as more Vice-symbol than all-too-human substance. When we first see the pair together in act one, scene two, Sir John is drunk asleep in a heap with a whore; and Hal, upon waking, picks up a pistol and considers whether he should use it to shoot the disgusting old sinner or his loathsome hungover self.
Epstein's Falstaff may not know of this particular threat, but he is aware from the beginning that there are dangerous depths to this relationship, and is feeling his way, intent on capturing the boy's affections and using him to finance his pleasures of the flesh. Sir John alternates between setting out cynical instruction in the ways of the wicked world and performing court-jester foolery to please his prince, but Hal won't encourage his efforts with smiles and laughter. The old man may dream of a position as benevolent mentor and father figure, but he must settle for mere attention and occasional access to Hal's well furnished purse. This Falstaff never comes close to securing the young man's displaced filial loyalty. In fact, Hal seems to like Falstaff best when the Fat Knight is off on some airy tangent of his own, or conversely, when the full blast of Falstaffean eloquence is employed in lacerating insult and aimed at himself: "You dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish!" There Falstaff is a father-surrogate indeed, his sack-inspired abuse a kind of inoculation against the prince's real parent's sober, soul-destroying condemnation: .."my near'st and dearest enemy/ Thou that art like enough--through vassal fear, base inclination, and the start of spleen,--to fight against me under Percy's pay."
Parental destruction is Harry Percy's reward for being an exemplary son, and his destruction comes at the hands of a Harry who has established a perspective from which to evaluate his father's words and deeds, and whose loyalty has become a matter of principle, informed rather than blind. Hotspur's father Northumberland (Hugh d Autremont)'s jealousies and grudges, and his uncle Worcester (John Hadden)'s weaselly opportunism, are treated by the impulsive young Percy as if they were matters of principle, and brave Harry throws himself wholeheartedly into battle for them in spite of good advice and his own better judgment: " a good plot, good friends, and full of expectation"!
On the page-- with the exception of the wonderfully whacky Owen Glendower, brought to life in all his ridiculous mystic splendor by Walton Wilson-- it is difficult to tell these contentious nobles apart, let alone care what becomes of any of them. But the Shakespeare and Company actors have worked hard to make each of them passionate and particular, and their shifting interrelationships a matter of suspense.
Still, the real suspense is focused on which son is making the right moves to win the game of honor. Both Harrys see their coming combat as inevitable and exculpatory. Hotspur expects to win because the king has flunked honor 101, and naturally has got the son a greedy lying hypocrite deserves: "Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse/ Meet, and ne're part till one drop down a corse". Hal: "I will redeem all this on Percy's head. This, in the name of God, I promise here: the which if He be pleased I shall perform."
Given the swift dark currents of the Shakespeare and Company interpretation, both Burrows and McCleary are still able to find plenty of variation within their heroic outlines. Hotspur's are simpler, in that he generally chases one impulse at a time until he uncovers a countercurrent. Then he will either dash off in that direction, or double his commitment to his first impulse. One way or the other, he must be a hero. Burrows' prince is a more complex creation, capable of sustaining contradictory impulses and insights at the same time, or of vacillating between them within a phrase. He is always, in some sense, beside himself, critiquing his performance as future king.
The hand-to-hand battle between the Harrys on the field at Shrewsbury must cap the mighty arch of this conception, and it does. The young men's swords are terrifying, they are nearly naked of armor, and dispense with shields -- all aggression, effort and daring, not a bit of strategy or defense. Their intense focus on each other, their grunting and sweating and thrusting and groaning, is as near to making love as making war. When the mortally wounded Harry Percy dies it is in Hal's arms, embraced like a lover, or like the dead Son in the pieta.
After the battle Falstaff manages to drag off Hotspur's corpse, and reduce the warrior's mythic qualities to a pile of gut-luggage that might be traded for an earldom -- but this once, in spite of Epstein's great talent, Falstaff has not been allowed to walk off with the play. All his intelligence, all his vitality and wit, are no more than vanity and diversion. Line for line, Epstein is a great Falstaff, but his domain has been reduced and his companions robbed of dimension. The women of the Company appear as they must to a casual customer -- no better than they should be, good for one thing only. Jane Nichols, as Mistress Quickly, is loud and smokes a cigar. Her several girls flaunt one trait apiece. Bardolph and Peto scarce make an impression. The exception to this flimsiness is Poins. Jason Aspery establishes a relationship with the prince that is something like friendship, two young men reaching across the abyss of class and conscience to play a boyish trick on a fat old liar. Hal no sooner finds himself in sympathy with the commoner than he recoils violently from the whole scene of "idleness", and reveals to us that soon he will reject his low company and claim his rightful place in the sun of royalty. The moment further humanizes Hal and further diminishes Falstaff.
Falstaff's most relevant speech, the disquisition on "honor" that might, if it were to be attended to, cause Hal to swerve from his path to Shrewsbury, isn't addressed to the prince at all, but is performed as stand-up comedy, breaching the fourth wall and inviting audience participation. Under those circumstances, and for that brief moment out of time and history, we can embrace Falstaff as Hal never does.