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July 08, 2006

I'm Hal from Chicago: Henry IV, Parts I & II performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Company as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival, Stratford-upon-Avon

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I & II
directed by Barbara Gaines
Chicago Shakespeare Theater Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
6th - 15th July 2006
performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival (April 2006 - April 2007)

The Royal Shakespeare Company's festival of the Complete Works lasts from April 2006 until April 2007. When the project was announced I was - probably in common with many other full members - sceptical. We are the core market, the season ticket holders. Many of us are prepared to buy tickets for most productions, sometimes all. For instance, in the six months up to April this wasn't very difficult because there were only five new productions, a figure which counts the two parts of The Canterbury Tales separately.

But what were we expected to do when faced with a menu of forty different productions, from all over the world, probably of variable quality? I only bought one set of tickets in advance: The Tempest with Pat Stewart, an old and jovial cricket opponent, as Prospero.

But it's going well. I'm not sure about the economics of bringing people most of the way round the world for half a dozen performances, but there have been hot tickets and rave reviews. The Indian Midsummer Night's Dream (in seven languages) was adored by both audiences and critics in a kind of post-colonial love-in; I thought it was very good, just not quite as good as some other people thought it was. The Japanese Titus Andronicus (with subtitles) was stylish and successful. The South African Hamlet is eagerly anticipated, though already notorious because one of its actors has been murdered.

In comparison with which the Americans seem to have got a raw deal. The problem is not the quality or quantity of the material: Henry IV is two plays, after all, and among Shakespeare's best. They have an unsurpassed range of incidents and ideas and a variety of male parts which any actor would covet. Who would not want to play the King, Hal, Hotspur, Glendower or Justice Shallow, let alone Falstaff?

But it also seems to me to be a very English play, usually performed with a good deal of British-English contemporary cultural meanings. An Indian Dream seemed entirely natural, but an American Hal? The Americans in question are the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Company, founded in 1986, well reputed and now performing at home in a state-of-the-art modern theatre funded by both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. But how would you do it? A lunchtime pub conversation suggested a blend of fifteenth century England and twentieth century America: Hal as a dissolute young Kennedy and Falstaff as a jovial Mafioso. "I know thee not, old man" makes perfect sense said by a newly nominated candidate to a gangster.

The answer is pretty trad. The style is sombre and mediaeval, the sets the minimal but suggestive forms which you would normally see at the RST, the costumes unusually opulent, the accents all over the place. I don't think this matters, but David Lively's King sounds like an Englishman while Pistol and Bardolph are good old boys from Tennessee and Greg Vinkler as Falstaff seems to speak with an accent of so many diverse parts that Henry Higgins would have to write a treatise on it.

The Welsh sounded good enough to me, but I was reliably informed it was gibberish. The Northumbrians are cool black guys, but that's pretty trad these days. Part I proceeds with enormous pace and verve accompanied by strong music. The comedy scenes are as good as I have seen them and when Hal sees Hotspur, the man to whom he has been compared all his life, usually unfavourably, through the smoke of the battlefield the thing is beautifully done as legitimate melodrama.

The company is strong throughout: I have not seen a better Ned Poins, Hal's mate, than Tim Kane and I was also impressed by Jessie Mueller as Lady Mortimer. She has to break off from singing in Welsh to her husband, whom she clearly adores despite their lack of a common language, to run out of the room because of her premonition that all the menfolk are doomed and all this is communicated without allowing her to speak a word of English (or a coherent word in any language, apparently).

David Lively is the most obvious strength of the play in its eponymous role; the play starts with an imaginative presentation of his nightmare of going to hell as a murderer and usurper and he is particularly convincing as a dieing man.

But the play and the audience must live and die with Hal whose character lies at the heart of these plays and of Henry V; this is surely one of the most complex and ambiguous characters in Shakespeare. For quite a time I didn't know what to make of Jeffrey Carlson as Hal. He looks great (imagine, if I'm not being too far-fetched, a combination of James Dean and Johnny Depp). He has a throaty voice possibly a temporary consequence of the English climate, a silly girlish giggle, a hyper-active body twitch and a sort of faux-English accent. At my most sceptical I thought he'd strayed into the play from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures ("Whoah, dude, we're in an English tavern") and/or snorted too much white stuff from the tables in the Boar's Head.

But he won me over, starting with the speech in the second scene when he confides to the audience that he is not exactly as he appears. I normally don't like this speech and consider it unnecessary, but here it comes over as a nervy, defiant, "I'm better than this" statement. After all, it is Hotspur who has the perceived heroic qualities and Hal is a dissolute mess with a nasty streak. That he has both steel and gravitas in there somewhere must be revealed and not flaunted. Carlson manages his transition well.

Henry IV sets a stern test, particularly, perhaps, if an audience watches both parts in the same day as I and most of this audience did. Part II is not as good; worse than that, it can feel like a bad sequel, the real issues having been concluded in the original.

Falstaff and Hal hardly meet in Part II and the latter's self-discovery is essentially complete. The rebellion in Part I concludes with the heroic confrontation at Shrewsbury, spiced by Falstaff's comical techniques for surviving battles. The rebellion in Part II ends when the rebels are conned into surrender and executed. Falstaff's great speech to the audience in Part I examines the concept of honour whereas that in Part II is in praise of booze. Falstaff's love of life transcends his vices and weaknesses in Part I whereas in II he often seems merely pathetic. I have seen productions which have maintained the pace and atmosphere nevertheless, but this is not one of them. The audience gave Part II polite, 5 and a half out of 10 applause in contrast to the real enthusiasm for Part I.

As a regular I often feel that the RSC has two endemic problems. It must offer something to tourists and schoolchildren who have never seen a production of a Shakespeare play, but also to its core market of people like me who have seen hundreds. Because it has produced the same plays many times any new director must feel they have to create something original and most of the disasters happen when this feeling goes wrong. A global festival, now I've experienced it, offers a way round these problems: spectacle and originality occur quite naturally.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick. To read his Retrospective Review of William Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, see The Number One Man's Number One Fan.

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Just wanted to make a comment to the young lady's Welsh. I know that she wasn't speaking jibberish, for I was in the same room when the lessons were going on from a Welsh man who wrote the text. I would probably have word with your reliable source to confront the Welsh man. I think it is a disservice to the young lady as an actor and as a person, the time and energy spent on rehearsing the text and pronunciation for the performance. Please do the right thing, defend her to your source. Be honorable.

Posted by: Richard Manera at July 19, 2006 09:43 AM

The Welsh could easily be one of those situations where the tutor was from North Wales, and the reliable source was from South Wales.

Although first lanaguage Welsh clearly don't have a problem understanding each other; I have heard many many times South Walians commenting that it was hard to understand people who were learning Welsh because they were being taught North Walian.


Posted by: cass at July 22, 2006 08:40 AM
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