REVIEW: Shakespeare Theatre takes on ‘Henry IV’ with Stacy Keach.
Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, the aimless young future king, is busy delaying an inevitability and has purposely found himself drawn into a hedonistic life with his friend, but never mentor, the fat old drunk, Falstaff. It’s a fling on the wild side, a temporary respite. In “Henry IV,” Parts 1 and 2, playing in repertory at the Shakespeare Theatre, the young prince is well aware that he will come to know soon enough what his father the king already knows: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” But Prince Hal isn’t as committed a dissolute as his companion — or he himself — believes. “Henry IV” is principally the saga of a callow young man (Matthew Amendt) and his transformation into Henry V.
In this production, Prince Hal arrives on the Harman Hall stage in his underwear after an evening with a prostitute who tosses his pants to him as he leaves. He drapes them indifferently over his shoulder and walks toward Falstaff, who is sleeping off another night of debauchery. Amendt, with his boyish looks, is an energetic but by no means sympathetic prince. Part of him is drawn to and loves the charismatic Falstaff, who has introduced him to a playful, irresponsible period of whoring and drinking with a group of incongruous low-life companions. Falstaff provides a sharp contrast to Prince Hal’s father, King Henry IV, a stern man awash in guilt over gaining his crown through the murder of his predecessor, Richard II. He wants to cleanse that sin from his soul through a Crusade to the Holy Land, but a rebellion at home forces him to abandon those plans.
“Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2 are considered to be among the best of Shakespeare’s historic plays, though the latter part is less-frequently produced. Director Michael Kahn has brought together a cast of impressive performers led by the steller Stacy Keach as Falstaff. Keach has such an extensive list of stage, television and film credentials that his resume takes up a full column in the playbill. He has a dominating presence and has starred in memorable performances here in the title roles of “Richard III” and “King Lear.” He is an actor not only capable of effectively chewing up the scenery, but the floorboards and first three rows of the theater, and has done so in numerous acclaimed performances.
Unfortunately, it seems that he and Kahn made the decision for Keach to portray a much more subdued Falstaff. Without the dynamism and fun, it’s difficult to understand how this personality would attract the companionship of Prince Hal. Keach’s Falstaff is a more pathetic figure, one who is cowardly, obese and getting old. All that is true, but his charisma and rascality have been so muted it contributes to a static nature in both parts of the play. We don’t get to sympathize with the lovability of this flawed man. Even with a large, superb cast, this “Henry IV” feels sluggish.
That superb cast includes Edward Gero who as King Henry IV is as usual, an inspired choice. He is every inch the king — stern and uncompromising, a troubled man weighed down by the responsibilities of ruling and putting down a revolution. Even on his deathbed at the end of part 2, Gero makes you want to weep over the guilt he still carries as he transfers his crown to his son, who for years had been a disappointment to him.
John Keabler is one to watch for in future productions. Keabler delivers a commanding performance as Hotspur, who engages in a sword fight to the death with Prince Hal. Washington audiences will also enjoy seeing the venerable Ted van Griethuysen as the Welsh rebellion leader Owen Glendower in part 1, and as Justice Shallow, a country justice, in part 2. Though heavily male-dominated, Vanessa Sterling holds her own in one of a handful of female roles as Lady Mortimer, daughter of Glendower, who sings a haunting Welsh ballad.
When Falstaff, who takes credit for courageous acts he didn’t commit on the battlefield, learns that his buddy Prince Hal has become Henry V, he rises excitedly from his self-pitying stupor to tell his companions that he knows Hal will reward his old companion with some high position. But when he stands in the crowd shouting to his old friend as he passes by, King Henry V coldly and cruelly ignores him. He then tells aides to have Falstaff arrested and taken away. Falstaff failed to understand that he could never be the king’s equal. In the end, Henry V is a remote and unlikable figure, but in Shakespeare’s subsequent history play, Henry V becomes a powerful and benevolent monarch and one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
“Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2 continue at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, through June 7, 2014 (Part 1) and June 8, 2014 (Part 2). Tickets $20-$115, available at 202-547-1122 and online for part one here and part two here.