It’s bad enough when your teenage son ignores your advice and parties till all hours with disreputable sorts. It’s even worse that he shows no interest in preserving the throne that you had to murder your cousin to attain. A father might be tempted to wish this profligate son on his enemy and covet his enemy’s daring and much-admired offspring as his own. Things can look bleak, indeed, for the “head that wears the crown.”
So it was with England’s King Henry IV, that same Henry Bolingbroke who was cousin and loyal subject of Richard II – until the day he wasn’t. One might say that Richard had it coming; one might also say that when Henry put the crown on his own head, he painted a target on his own back. But that’s what happens when you make desperate promises to powerful families who agree to help you to the throne – and then ignore those promises.
Shakespeare’s first in the “Henriad” of history plays, “Henry IV, Part I”, comes intensely alive in this Folger production at the hands of director, Rosa Joshi and a superb cast. That immediacy is captured in Sara Clement’s scene design and Hesse Belsky’s lighting. Giant tube lights in startling colors surrounded by heavy metal ladders and gratings aren’t there to evoke romantic images of England’s royalty, but to reinforce the hard-edged reality of death struggles and power climbs.
The most interesting balance in the play is not between “good guys” and “bad guys”. King Henry IV (Peter Crook) has too much on his conscience to be the hero, and his antagonists, Mortimer (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) and the powerful Percy family led by Harry “Hotspur”(a flinty portrayal by Tyler Fauntleroy), have righteous claims of their own. Their conflict leads to the bloody - and decisive - Battle of Shrewsbury, a clash among equals. The other story, the undercurrent to the king’s anger and despair, is the rollicking relationship between young Prince Hal and that incorrigible, cowardly, merry rogue, the immortal Jack Falstaff.
While there’s very little historical support for the image of young Hal as the careless carouser drawn in this play, it makes for a much more satisfying story, and it lets us spend some quality time in Mistress Quickley’s (Kate Norris) tavern with Falstaff and his “villainous company” of friends. While the rest of the play is filled with desperate action and intrigues, as well as the occasional steamy interlude between Hotspur and his Lady (Maribel Martinez), this is where the fun is.
Quick scene changes by the characters produce quick mood changes as well, particularly when the king’s severe black throne flips down to become the tavern table where sprawls our degenerate hero.
I have never seen a bad professional portrayal of Falstaff, but this characterization by Edward Gero takes the old reprobate to a memorable new level. Full throttled as he fearlessly drinks, brags, lies, and cavorts, there is also nuance in his awareness of what his friendship with the king’s son means – or could mean - for the future. Falstaff’s rowdy call for a scene “extempore” in which he and the prince quiz one another while playing the king reveals subtle and inevitable truths, and Avery Witted as Prince Hal is the perfect foil.
Yes, he’s slumming, partying, drinking too much, and going along with the gang down at Eastcheap. But always there’s the shadow of dignity, the baseline knowledge that no matter how he plays it, he’s still the king’s son and the challenges and dangers that await him can’t be put off forever.
Powerful stylized movement and choreography by Alice Gosti fit the grand themes and action effectively to the modest but flexible Folger stage, and fight choreographer U. Jonathan Toppo brings the Battle of Shrewsbury desperately alive. (Mr. Toppo is also impressive as both Northumberland, and the Welsh hero, Owen Glendower) The beauty of the battle scene is in the illusion of great armies in controlled chaos; nevertheless, the real battle is between Harry, Prince of Wales, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy.
The rivalry is political, personal, and critical; when Hotspur falls – as we know he must, or there would have been no Henry V – sea change occurs for the House of Lancaster. Original music and sound design by Palmer Hefferan effectively emphasize actions and moods every step of the way.
Profound and powerful, this is a treat for fans of Shakespeare and a must-see for the devotees of Shakespeare’s histories.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
Want to go?
What: Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I”
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library
201 E. Capitol St. SE
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre
Playing through Oct. 13