There's trouble brewing in the north of England in the form of rebellion waged by three of the king's most powerful vassals: the Earls of Northumberland, Wales and Scotland, derailing Henry IV's plans for a holy crusade to Jerusalem. And if that's not enough, the Prince of Wales, the king's oldest son and heir apparent, is shirking his duties, carousing with the barflies of East Cheap and spending his days in a drunken stupor. What's a father (and king) to do?
That's the $64 question facing King Henry IV of England in Shakespeare's history play, Henry IV, Part I, now receiving a superb, riveting production by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey as the inaugural offering of their fiftieth season. What might come off as a dry, boring chronicle of what it's like to be a king has been turned by Shakespeare into a family drama of epic proportions, filled with low comedy; high dudgeon; and ruminations on honor, loyalty and leadership, making for a satisfying evening of theater and showing us that the royals aren't so different from you and me.
The king in question has usurped the throne from the last Plantagenet ruler, Richard II, and had him executed, which makes Henry's claim to the crown tenuous at best. And the trouble he's having at home echoes what's happening in the field. Despairing of his son Hal's ever being worthy of inheriting the throne, Henry looks longingly at another young man, Henry Percy, son of his nemesis the Earl of Northumberland, who appears to have all the knightly virtues Hal lacks. What the king doesn't realize is that Percy isn't nicknamed "Hotspur" for nothing: he's prone to shoot off his mouth without considering the consequences, and he’s hot to trot when it comes to getting his comeuppance, much to his father's dismay.
Beginning his 22nd season with STNJ, Joseph Discher shows what a fine director he's become as he guides his large cast through an intricate and highly human story. Brent Harris is appropriately regal as Henry IV (formerly Bolingbroke), yet we sense his anxiety that these troubles he faces are payback for his illegal seizure of the crown. He's clearly disappointed in his boy but doesn't offer any guidance other than chastising the young man for his louche behavior. The elder Percys, played by Conan McCarty and Glenn Beatty, are at their wits’ ends regarding Hotspur's behavior, which makes relations much worse between them and the king despite the latter’s attempts at reconciliation. The other rebellious nobles, Doug West as Lord Mortimer, Drew Dix as the Welsh lord Glendower and Maxon Davis as the Earl of Douglas (with a rippingly good thick Scottish accent), are a force for Henry to reckon with, given their hurt feelings because they feel he's neglected to acknowledge the help they gave him in deposing Richard. Aabove l-r: Brent Harris as King Henry the Forth and John Little as Earl of Westmoreland)
John Barker's Hotspur is impatience personified; we can almost see his fingers itching to wield a sword against his sovereign. Loud, swaggering, even unmindful of his lovely wife's pleas to stay home, he's every inch the nightmare of a son as is Prince Hal. As that young man, Derek Wilson(right, on the table, surrounded by the ne’er-do-wells of a favorite tavern) turns in a breathtaking performance, wherein he goes from drunken prankster to imperious and spiteful young knave to courageous knight in the space of two and a half hours. We see glimmers of the king he will become in Henry V, resolute and strong but retaining the lessons he learned at the feet of his lowborn companions. Wilson's outstanding stage presence makes him the center of our attention whenever he appears.
But the fallen knight Sir John Falstaff (left) is really the center of all this father-son turmoil swirling onstage. As Shakespeare's most famous comic character, John Ahlin fills the role (and the costume) almost to bursting, yet when Hal rejects his companion's company to go to war, Ahlin almost deflates before our eyes. Ahlin's Falstaff is a kind drunk, even when he role plays the king and "criticizes" Hal, he does so with loving kindness, in contrast to the rather nasty attitude taken by Hal when he plays king and disparages Falstaff (photo above right). As for Ahlin's comedic prowess, a drunken Falstaff attempting to put on a shoe or embellishing a story drew gales of laughter from the audience. It is a joy to watch this seasoned actor tackle such an iconic role, arousing our sympathy for what could be an unattractive character. He is truly in love with this young man, is more of a father to him than the king, so when Hal moves on to the next part of his life, we feel sad for Falstaff. What a magnificent performance!
Not to be ignored are the women in the troupe. Izzie Steele (right, with John Barker) as Lady Percy (Hotspur's wife) is especially poignant as she attempts to dissuade her husband from going to war. Jesse Graham's Mistress Quickly, hostess of the tavern, is appropriately lusty and gives a spirited rejoinder when she is accused of being a whore. And Megan Sass is absolutely wonderful as the Welsh-speaking Lady Mortimer; we may not literally understand a word she says, but she manages to communicate the gist of her entreaty to desist from this mad venture.
Jonathan Wentz's Gothic-flavored set (with a grand stairway for dramatic entrances and exits) and Paul H. Canada's medieval costumes transport us to the early years of the 15th century; Matthew E. Adelson's lighting and Rich Dionne's sound complete the medieval tapestry. Michael Rossmy's intricate fight direction lets us know that real violence exists outside the walls of the palace, posing an existential threat to Henry's throne and the lives of his knights (including his son).
Director Discher has wisely eschewed having his actors speak in British accents, allowing us to focus on the universal human aspects of their characters and relationships. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, kings may be different from you and me (they have more money), but they suffer the same "slings and arrows" of fortune as do ordinary folk. Only the stakes are higher.
Henry IV, Part I will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue (on the campus of Drew University) in Madison, through June 24th. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Photos by Gary Goodstein.