July 13, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Henry IV Part 1 & 2 (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) @ The Swan Theatre

The first of the American companies, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, have been performing these two plays in tandem all week, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to see them both in one day- Part I in the afternoon, part II in the evening.

I was quite interested to see how an international company would treat the English history plays, so I suppose it wasn’t too surprising that they went for a very straightforward, traditional approach. A few bits of spectacle added colour though- Glendower, for example, shot real flame from his magic staff (!!) and Part I opened with a ‘dream’ sequence with special effects showing Henry’s crown bleeding onto his pillow before he awoke with all the blood gone.

Part I suffered slightly as I tried to get my ears around the accents. While some characters, such as Bardolph, retained unashamed American accents, other actors had confused voices. Hal’s accent, in particular, was a strange amalgamation of American, English and Irish, and came across as if he was trying to affect an English accent and failing. This might not have been the case, but it was certainly very offputting. A couple of other characters struggled in this way as well, and it seemed a real shame- productions from India and South Africa proudly retained their own accents and dialects, and I don’t think plain American accents would have hindered this production in any way.

That point aside, after a while the accents ceased to be an annoyance, and the production itself more than made up for them. Lively, fast-paced and entertaining, one of the highlights (and this shouldn’t be a surprise!) was Greg Vinckler’s Falstaff. Vinkler brought out the old man’s frailty, particularly in scenes with Doll Tearsheet in Part II where he seemed barely able to stand.

Jeffrey Carlson’s Hal was central in both plays, and aside from the accent difficulties presented a very dark and troubled Hal. His soliloquy was interestingly delivered not as a brooding reflection but as a breast-beating shout of anguish, which betrayed self-disgust at his time-wasting. He was ruthless, too- in his final battle with Hotspur he was actually beaten, but Hotspur chivalrously gave Hal back his sword. The fight ended in a brawl which Hal came victorious out of, but hardly a heroic end! His final banishment of Falstaff was chilling, the old man kneeling on the floor before him while Hal stood on high, far far above his former friend. As guards drew Falstaff away, one man punched the frail knight hard in the stomach in a shocking moment that implied a cruelty behind the apparently benevolent offer of a pension. Elsewhere, Prince John shot the archbishop rather than simply arrest him, emphasising the brutality of the royal family.

The tavern scenes were very funny, Pistol in particular causing a riot as he carelessly drew his gun and sent everyone else diving for the floor. John Douglas Thompson’s Hotspur was suitably loud and passionate, while Lady Mortimer ended the first Act of Part I with a lament in Welsh for the husband she would soon say goodbye to. Another highlight was Rumour, who opened Part II by bantering with the audience and accusing various spectators of having affairs with others, before wandering round Northumberland and his men whispering in their ears.

The main problem with this production was the insistence on over-emphasising points. While this was sometimes effective (punching Falstaff had a particular impact), at other times it was frustrating to watch the actors insist on ‘acting out’ every single thing they said. Hal was the guiltiest of this; with a manic twitch and a restless motion, he never seemed comfortable unless he was doing something or going somewhere, when much of the time he might have been far better just standing still (someone referred to him as ‘Toby Stephens’ Hamlet on speed, which was somewhat fitting!).

The negatives really weren’t too bad though, and certainly didn’t spoil what was a very enjoyable double-production. They rattled through both plays at a fast pace and really evoked a sense of people being swept along by events. The closing moments saw an enormous map of France, with Agincourt clearly marked, unfolding from the ceiling, setting the scene for where the characters would be heading next and reminding us that this is only one part of an ongoing story. And it says something that Part II was sold out, thanks to a number of people who saw Part I in the morning enjoying it so much that they wanted to carry on. Clearly, despite the old joke, Americans CAN do Shakespeare!

Posted in Theatre review