Solid Henry IV, Part One Opens
The quote about the uneasily lying head is actually from the later Henry IV, Part Two, but it fully applies here. Part One begins one year after King Henry has brought about the death of his cousin Richard II in the process of usurping his throne. To assuage a sense of guilt, King Henry wants to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Although Henry Percy (Hotspur) has largely put down a rebel uprising in Scotland, further military action is needed there, and Welsh rebel Owen Glendower has defeated and captured Henry's loyal ally Edmund Mortimer. Thus, Henry cannot leave on his crusade.
Henry will not pay a ransom to Glendower to free Mortimer because he believes that Mortimer, who is married to Glendower's daughter, has joined forces with Glendower. This angers Hotspur, who is married to Mortimer's sister, so he dodges surrendering prisoners from his Scottish campaign to Henry. A whole slew of PercysHotspur, his father (Northumberland) and villainous uncle (Worcester)organize a rebellion against Henry which includes other royals (Mortimer, Glendower, York and Douglas). Despite the clarity of this production, a careful reading of the cast of characters in your theatre program is recommended for anyone not thoroughly conversant with this history.
The other principal woe of King Henry, and, likely, the funniest and most extended comic plotline in any Shakespearean history, involves the conduct of Henry's older son Prince Henry (Hal). Imprudently carousing with one of the Bard's most delightful and audience pleasing creations, the witty and morally iconoclastic Sir John Falstaff, Hal drinks, boisterously misbehaves, plots mischief, and dallies with trollops. When, oh when will he assume his royal and familial responsibilities?
Given the deep impression that Falstaff has continued to make on audiences for over 400 years, director Joe Discher has wisely and silently added telling theatrical flourishes involving both Falstaff and the prince, both at the start and conclusion to Henry IV, which enhance the play. Before the first scene in which King Henry is informed of the status of a rebellion, we see Falstaff lolling in an inebriated state as he quaffs his ale. And in another area (likely a tavern bedroom), Prince Hal is in passionate embrace with one of his trollops). At the end of the play on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, King Henry speaks the plays final words, and exits. Prince Hal is about to turn and follow him off, and ... it would be improper to describe the play's conclusion here. Just rest assured that Discher's bookends to this Shakespearean history are good stuff, really good stuff.
It is not coincidental that the accomplished John Ahlin has made a specialty of playing Falstaff. Whether in the tavern or on the battlefield, Ahlin richly portrays Falstaff in all his shameless glory. Whether lying about his exploits or lying face down on the battlefield to save his skin by pretending to be a corpse, Ahlin's Falstaff projects a delight in himself which makes him appealing to the Prince and to us despite his incorrigibility.
Derek Wilson's Prince Hal has a reserve, call it a quiet nobility, about him that allows us to see that he possesses the seed for responsibility even as he pursues his wastrel pleasures.
Brent Harris brings a tired, haggard quality to King Henry which sets him apart from the plotters and supporters around him who do not have the burden of wearing the crown. Jon Barker brings a dark, steely anger to Hotspur which suggests that, even more than grievance, it is high self-regard and a lust for power that motivate his rebellion.
John Little (Westmoreland) and Robert Grant (Sir Walter Blunt) as loyalists to the King are strong and sympathetic. Conan McCarty (Worcester), Glenn Beatty (Northumberland), Doug West (Mortimer), Maxon Davis (Douglas) and Drew Dix (Glendower) bring distinctive personalities to their rebellious actions as they quarrel over the division of the land and otherwise display their villainy.
Jonathan Wentz has designed an exceptionally evocative and sturdy wooden set across the back stage wall featuring a steep center stage stairway, a promenade high across the rear of the stage which serves as a landing for the staircase. The promenade is visually divided into sections by ornately carved arches. Paul H. Canada's traditional costumes are attractive and playable, and sufficiently varied to help us distinguish the royals from one another.
Fight Director Michael Rossmy has designed an extended rapier duel for Prince Henry and Hotspur that is one of the finest and most excitingly choreographed duels you are likely to see. It is one of the highlights of a very solid production which has gotten the STNJ 50th Anniversary Season off to a fine start. You may well want to check out the season schedule. It is one that I find rather exciting to contemplate.
Henry VI, Part One continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday (except 6/24) 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday, Sunday 2 pm) through June 24, 2012 at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Henry VI, Part One by William Shakespeare; directed by Joe Discher