Both last week and this week were filled with royalty of the English stage. Last week it was Sir Ian Mckellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Sir Antony Sher. This week I saw Dame Harriet Walter and Mark Rylance. This Wednesday we saw a DONMAR Warehouse theatre co. production of Henry IV part I at the King’s Cross theatre. This production was part of their Shakespeare trilogy, which also included the The Tempest and Julius Ceasar. I’ve seen a few productions of Henry IV part I on screen and on stage. The last production that I saw of Henry the IV part I was a whole afternoon performance of the Henriad at the Druid theatre in Galway, Ireland. The Henriad is the term scholars use for the historical tetralogy covering the fall of King Richard the II and the eventual rise of King Henry the V, who we see as a young and reckless Prince Hal in King Henry the IV parts I and II. That’s right, I decided a whole day dedicated to Shakespeare performances was really how I wanted to spend some of my vacation time in Ireland, and I’ll never regret it! The Hollow Crown is a quite recent BBC series that stars many famous English actors. I preferred the Druid theatre companies’s performances, but now let’s talk about our most recent performance.
This Shakespeare trilogy is all female and all three productions are set in a prison. As soon as we arrived to the theatre a loud buzzer went off with the announcement, “PLEASE MAKE WAY FOR THE INMATES.” as a long line of “prisoners” walked through the crowds and into the theatre. It was one of those weird moments in theatre where everyone in the audience is hyper-aware that this situation is fake, but we’re all jumping into the world of the play now, even though we’re still surrounded by our friends and peers. I’m glad I did my research, because I didn’t realize during this production that they had squished together both parts Henry I and II, which would explain some scenes that I was a little confused with. The play ended with Falstaff’s banishment by the newly crowned Prince Hal, now King Henry the V.
These plays were made in partnership with Clean Break theatre, which is dedicated to producing theatre with prisoners, or inspired by their stories. Through this association came the concept, set, and character design for these shows. Each “prisoner” was given a background based off of real stories from inmates. However it was very clear within the production that these weren’t just actors when the lights went down, but there were deeper connections between the characters and stories we didn’t know about. In the online program they write about creating “families” within this small prison infrastructure. There are three main “families,” or “gangs,” if you will. There’s Sir John Falstaff and his group of rag-tag criminals, a gang of alcohol and drug addicts, who frequent the shared prison space when it’s set up as a nursery space – a space which they recreate as the Boar’s Head, from the original script, using the miniature tables, chairs and props to help them take the leap into the world of the tavern. At one point Falstaff uses a child’s chair as his crown when satirizing the current King in a jest with Prince Hal. There’s the opposing family, the Percy family, which Hostpur is from, which is a family of exercise fiends who hang out in the shared prison space. Of course there is the royal family, with King Henry the IV and Prince Hal. There were breaks in some of the scenes, where usually Falstaff would try to improv. and then the rest of the scene would come crashing down. This happened twice, when they were insulting the mistress of the Boar’s Head, and when Prince Hal banished Falstaff from the kingdom. Both times Falstaff would just begin to unravel, and suddenly the stage lights had been switched to dim fluorescents, and guards were coming on stage holding people away from each other. I feel bad saying that I “liked” seeing this, but I really liked the reactions of shock and fear from the other inmates whenever these broken moments would happen.
I thought the prison setting and concept worked extremely well for this performance, although when I brought it up in conversation a teacher made an interesting remark. He was sad that in all male productions of Shakespeare you rarely see a veil or large design concept covering the performance, wheras he thought most all-female Shakespeare productions seemed like they needed the large set design in order for it to be “ok” to do these productions. It’s unfortunate that theatres still feel the need to validate their creative choices by possibly changing them so they aren’t –too-different. Although, like I said, I really enjoyed this concept and thought it was really well played out. It gave some really interesting new insight to certain relationships that I hadn’t really given thought to before, and was really inspirational for me as an actor. For most of my theatre “career,” I have played many many boys. Even as a little girl I remember always being pushed into playing the prince or the step-sister, but that’s when I began to realize how much fun these “ugly” parts can be. As I grew older I became more comfortable playing boys, and really wanted to in Shakespeare, because they have the best parts (for the majority)! After this performance I was so happy and lucky to meet and talk to many of the cast members, including Harriet Walter. Harriet Walter is a very famous stage and screen actress and author who is also well known in the feminist theatre circles. So it was pretty amazing, I gotta say. I really enjoyed talking to her and a professor from my school about gender in Shakespeare and theatre in general. We both remarked how odd it feels that sometimes putting on “the pants” makes you feel more like yourself. Not that you desire to be a man, but for some reason it does feel strangely more comfortable than if you ask me to wear a slip dress and bat my eyes at some Romeo. When Ms. Walter was talking her production, she was talking about how it was a call to attention for new playwrights. “Look, this is how women can be portrayed, we’re not all ingénues and frails, and there are many stories that need to be told.” I couldn’t agree more.
I guess I would call it “The Power of Play.” It’s an incredible profession to have where you can pretend to be others and project their stories for others to see. Some stories fit better than others, because some stories you’ve already shared in your own life. However, sometimes the strangest characters draw a chord in our hearts, and we feel oddly connected to these oddballs. I certainly felt this way during the production of Woyzeck that I was in last year. I never thought I’d be sympathetic for my very antagonizing characters, and yet I remember journaling about them and feeling so tied to these, freaks, these monsters! But I think once the actor finds these sympathies and (maybe) similarities, this is when the work will come through the performance. All throughout Henry IV I knew Falstaff wasn’t as jolly or Santa Claus-y that many productions portray him, there was an edge of unknown danger, and yet I was still extremely sympathetic for him. Because the actor fully understood the character’s quirks and woes, they are able to help us, the audience, understand why we should care for them as well.
The Mystery of Sir John Falstaff is a great one that I would like to ponder over for a bit. Actors, scholars, directors, you name it they have written articles and books about this character for hundreds of years. Why? What makes this silly drunk fat man so interesting, and why do we care about him so much? Falstaff appears in Henry IV part I and II, Henry V (where he is claimed dead), but is brought back in the jovial romp The Merry Wives of Windsor. I can’t help but think this was like seeing your favorite Saturday Night Live host returning several weeks in a row, and the skits never seem to get old. Shakespeare has plenty of old blokes in his repertoire, but Falstaff’s quick wit, loyal heart, and hilariously cowardly tendencies are what keep us wanting more from this fat knight. Playing Falstaff, to me, should seem almost as nerve wrecking as playing Hamlet or Macbeth, because of your predestined contract to the audience. Dear actor who is playing Falstaff, whether you’ve realized it or not, the audience should be expecting you to sweep them off their feet in wit and hilarity, so you’ve got a lot more audience feedback at stakes than the dramatic leads. Falstaff is somehow a mixture of a grounded bowl of potato spuds mixed with the spirit and vitality of the supernatural, which has astonished me since the first time I saw his character.
Although I thought this was a really great ensemble, there were definitely some performances I must mention. I was very intrigued at how the Falstaff was going to be, but she was amazing. Her ability to carry an edge even though she was causing huge laughs in the audience was really awesome. I’ve always loved the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, (who doesn’t, really?) and this relationship was no different. The constant roll between one-upping each other in friendly competition until Hal gets wise and pulls a prank on Falstaff that leaves him looking a fool in front of all of their friends. The ladies had really great chemistry and worked really well bouncing each other’s energies off the other. Hotspur was amazing. Her physicality seemed exhausting because she was constantly moving and always had huge energy, but she really encompassed his fiery callow spirit. Prince Hal was a very strong actress who commanded the space with the airs of a strong leader ready to take over her father’s kingdom. She had a beautiful Irish brogue that was a little muddy at some points, but I also wasn’t too mad just listening to the lyrical accent. Of course King Henry, Harriet Walter was very good, strong, pensive, and sometimes a bit preoccupied by either his reckless son or the state of his kingdom.
Of course these main characters did a great job, but the real MVP awards go to the rest of the ensemble. They all had extremely detailed physicality’s, voices, and quirks to make their characters unique. There were some really beautiful moments that were spoken in Spanish by Hotspur’s father. Hotspur’s death scene was quite heavy, and Hotspur’s father just released these wrenching screams of pain that filled you with a myriad of terrible emotions. The Welsh commander, Glendower, was so funny when they injected a Welsh choir. Like Shakespeare does, there is a scene with a Welsh joke at Glendower, so his posse just rolled up behind him and began singing, because of course a Welsh villain would have a choir as a posse. Little things like that really helped the overall ensemble shine.
As I mosied my way through the cast and interrupted their normal post-show drinks, I really realized how casual British actors are. You truly have to be a huge name in film in order to have long lines of organized chaos on the West End, but if you look at any line after Hamilton people are practically losing their shirts after every performance. As I approached the woman playing Falstaff, I recognized a face. But how? Actors from other shows hanging out together, impossible! But lo and behold, there was Alice from Blue Heart! I awkwardly greeted both of them and got their signatures and briefly spoke to them about their performances. She seemed just as shocked at my recognition of her, so maybe we both got a shock out of that night. It was so inspiring to be in a room filled with incredible actresses and creators, I could feel my toes tingling the whole way home. It was just the cherry on top that everyone was so nice and open to me as well. I can’t imagine how old signatures and “wow, shucks, that was so great!” can get, but they all seemed incredibly…okay with me intruding for a bit of time. Although it wasn’t the most moving production I’ve seen this semester, it was definitely the most inspiring for me as a young actor.