Monday, April 25, 2016

King And Country: Henry IV Part 2, or, Johnny (Falstaff) One-Note

See this? That's how much plot you're getting tonight.

You don’t see this play done by itself very often—I have a vague memory of seeing it once before this, but damned if I can remember when—because when it’s done at all, it’s either done in rep with Part 1 or combined with Part 1 to make one gigantic HenryFouriad, like the version at Lincoln Center in 2003. And for good reason. The plain truth is, this play can’t be done on its own. It’s a Part 2 that requires an intimate knowledge of Part 1, a sequel in which the opening Eastcheap scenes all contain callbacks to things that happened in Part 1, and they’re not references that are explained. The only way it can be successfully mounted as a standalone is if you construct a “Previously, on Henry The Fourth Part One” voiceover, with excerpts and selected moments from the prior play presented for the Bolingbrokian impaired. 

I would have loved it if this production had started out that way. But it doesn’t. It starts out with a monologue by Rumor—a very modern Rumor, wearing a Rolling Stone Tongue T-shirt (perfect) and carrying a cellphone (double perfect), who delivers a clever multilingual  hashtag joke (perfect hat trick). The entire speech is delivered like Hal’s monologue, right at the audience with the house lights up half. And then he waves them down, and we are in the play proper, and it’s the first misfire of a night which will contain several. In most productions, the actor playing Rumor also plays Lord Bardolph, who brings (what turns out to be rumor and false) news of the battle of Shrewsbury to Hotspur’s father. In this production, the actor playing Rumor plays the Porter who lets Bardolph in, so the point that Bardolph is a walking rumor is lost. Which is inside baseball, yes, but it’s the kind of smart moment that happened everywhere in the earlier two plays in this series. 

Not this one, though. Where the previous play soared, this one staggers and disorients, and this production does its best to help it walk, but it’s a lot of heavy lifting. The scenes with Hotspur’s father are confusing. Is he going to war? Is he getting out of Dodge? Is there a point where we should care? Out of nowhere, Hal has enough brothers to field a basketball team—one of whom (Prince John) is a total dick. Plus Hal doesn’t show up for almost an hour of stage time. Plus the funny stuff isn’t as funny as everyone thinks it is, and when I say this, I’m pointing at the Pistol scene (Act II, Scene 4). It’s so relentlessly devoid of laughs that you can feel the actors’ frustrations coming out—it’s like watching a bunch of people kick a dead body as hard as they can to bring it back to life. But no such luck; it was dead on arrival.  

And that’s how this play feels for the first half. Everyone is trying to lift it up, but it just won’t get off the ground, not the way the first part did. And I know it’s wrong to compare one play with another, but damn, a good 30% of this script is full of nothing but references to another play, so how can you help comparing the two of them? You can’t. 

Seeing Henry IV 2, you really appreciate the ease with which the three worlds of Henry IV 1 are integrated: the court, Eastcheap, and the rebellious north.  It’s a study in contrasts that is as brilliant as the Athenians/Mechanicals/Fairies triptych in Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s also lightning in a bottle. You can’t repeat it. Which is what makes this play not just problematical thematically but incredibly difficult to do theatrically. And the problem is epitomized by the portrayal of one character: Falstaff. For the first 90 minutes, he is the one constant. Not Hal, not the court: Falstaff. Yeah, we get some scenes in the North, and the beginnings of a new rebellion, but we also get a ton and a half of Eastcheap before we finally (finally) see Hal for the first time. And throughout all this, Anthony Sher kills it as Falstaff. But then this play is built around Falstaff. He has a monologue like once every ten minutes. The more he talks, the more you’re supposed to love him. Because the more you love him, the more it’s going to hurt when Hal becomes King and rejects him. But because the play is structured so that Hal’s accession is a late-second-half development, and because it’s built on the same kind of “I screwed up/I forgive you” scene with his father that reconciled the two of them in Part 1, it feels rushed. Like Shakespeare said to Will Kempe: “Okay, you’ve got two hours to ad-lib your ass off as Falstaff; but then I REALLY have to start telling the story, okay?” 

[Theatrical side note. Think of the pre-1600 Chamberlain’s Men as the kind of repertory company where all the sharers were (a) guaranteed roles in each play the company performed and (b) also given an equal number of lead roles, depending on what plays were done. And Henry IV 2 was Will Kempe’s lead role as Falstaff. Probably his last one. Because once the Men built the Globe in 1600, Burbage and his brother owned half the total shares of the company, Shakespeare’s plays were all written for Burbage to play the lead and no one else, and Kempe was gone as a sharer. Why? Nobody really knows. But watching Henry IV 2, it’s not hard to see Richard Burbage seething at all the attention Kempe is getting, and then turning to Shakespeare and saying “If I’m doing Henry the Fifth, I’m not doing it with Kempe as Falstaff. Because it’ll be his play, not mine. So no Falstaff. And Kempe’s out.” ] 

This production does its best to make the first half feel like more than filler, but it’s an uphill battle, and it doesn’t settle down until the war starts and we get to Gloucestershire. With the appearance of Shallow and Silence, something like the balance of Part I is achieved, for now the comedy has war to bounce off instead of referencing moments from another play, and that makes it sharper and funnier. Oliver Ford Davies, with his plummy voice and manner, makes Shallow a continual delight; the scene where the recruits are chosen is hilarious in all the right satirical ways.

But in the end, side dishes are not meant to be main courses, and by building most of the play around Falstaff, the story—the history—bounces off the comedy, instead of the other way around. The thing is, Falstaff without the real world to bounce against or comment on is like Costello without Abbott. You can’t have misrule without rule, and there is no rule in this play. If Henry IV I was a house of many rooms, this play is a house with just one. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode where every door you think is going to lead you out, leads you back to Falstaff and Eastcheap, and try as you may, you can’t run away from them. Which is why Hal’s “I know you not, old man” speech is not just an attack on Falstaff, it’s an attack on the audience, like it’s our fault for liking Falstaff so much from the first play that he usurped the second one just to make us happy, and now he’s rejected and there’s going to be a war with France. Happy now, Falstaff lovers?
Text note: the epilogue, which promises that Falstaff will return in Henry V, is dropped.

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