by JK Clarke
This is the second in a series of four reviews of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, now playing at The Brooklyn Academy of Music and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Ohio State University. Click through for reviews of the other plays in the series: Richard II, Henry IV, Part II, Henry V; and for a series overview, click here.
The story of a young man who sows his wild oats a little too enthusiastically (usually to the consternation of his family and community), then suddenly grows up and becomes an upstanding, admired or even heroic adult, is as old and time-worn as any literary trope. But one of the earliest, and best known, of these stories is that of the rogue Prince Hal and his carousing with Sir John Falstaff and his band of pranksters and thieves at the Boar’s Head Inn in Eastcheap, London. Shakespeare painted this amusing image of a King and his disappointing, n’er-do-well son, the Prince of Wales, in Henry IV, Part I, the second play in the Great Cycle of Kings playing now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Henry IV Part I has been set up as a heavy political drama interspersed with ribald tavern scenes in order to break the tension and create contrast. Opening in a magisterial, echoing throne room of King Henry IV’s palace in London, the King (a powerful Jasper Britton) confers with his ministers. Heavy with guilt over his overthrow of King Richard II, he begins to plan a penance-based crusade to the Holy Land, but troubles at home (potential rebellion from former allies) stop him short. Harry Percy, aka Hotspur (interestingly played by Matthew Needham as stiff and socially awkward, in sharp contrast to Hal), one of the kingdom’s fiercest soldiers is withholding prisoner ransoms (a chief form of income) and rebuking the King, his erstwhile admirer. Henry is enraged and vows to put down the rebellion.
Meanwhile, these tense scenes are intercut with our introduction to Prince Hal (an appropriately charming Alex Hassell) who is tussling about in bed with at first one, then we see two, comely lasses, awakening from a night of carousing and imbibing. The sheets are then removed from the foot of the bed to reveal Sir John Falstaff (the inestimable and much celebrated Antony Sher who plays one of the best Falstaffs in memory), a red-faced, rotund, inebriate, who is also awakening from a grand (and quite usual) night of drunken revelry. Prince Hal is a good natured jokester, enjoying his youth. These scenes with Falstaff break the tension nicely. But when left alone, the house lights come up and Hassell’s Prince Hal cleverly addresses the crowd,: “I know you all . . .” he tells us slyly, and goes on to explain that his behavior is calculated and momentary. He realizes that people in country speak ill of him, but
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
He is far more Machiavellian and ingenious than anyone could imagine. While Hal continues playing tricks on the delightfully naïve and bloviating Falstaff, tensions build on the other side, as Wales and Scotland take arms against the crown. Playing it cool all the way down the line, Hal goes to war, fighting valiantly, even alongside the ragtag assemblage of Falstaff’s battalion. When confronted by the arrogant and temperamental Hotspur, he engages humbly and overcomes (“O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!”) in a beautifully staged and intense broadsword-fight (fight choreography by Terry King). Shocked by Hal’s “transformation” the King is reinvigorated, ready to completely stifle the rebellion.
This is a beautiful, classically staged production, led by director Gregory Doran. With a minimal, yet impactful set (Stephen Brimson Lewis), that easily transforms from palace interiors (with gothic arches projected on metal curtains), to tavern, to battlefield complete with a lucite floor that lights from below; and evocative moving lighting (Tim Mitchell); and stunning period costumes (Stephanie Arditti), it’s easy to lose oneself in the action. All that, coupled with the fantastic ensemble acting, particularly the merry pranksters of Eastcheap, makes for a gripping, intense play that (despite the preconceived view of Shakespeare’s histories) doesn’t lag for a moment.
Henry IV Part I (Second play of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings quadrilogy). Through May 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn). www.bam.org
Photos: Richard Termine