Henry IV part 2 – July 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th July 2006

This was probably my most eagerly anticipated performance of the season so far. I had enjoyed Part 1 so much, and was really keen to see how they did Part 2. I wasn’t disappointed.

The start was beyond brilliant. One of the actors was got up in a gaudy costume, bright red with black, sparkling like a glitterball, hair slicked back like a lounge lizard, looking pretty devilish. He stood in one of the aisles as the last of the audience were taking their seats and then addressed us all quite informally. After a few funny comments of introduction, he asked if we’d like to hear some gossip, and after one man said “Yes” loudly enough, he informed us that a lady across from him was having an affair. Funnily enough, with the man who’d called out. By this time, he’d glided over to the centre of the stage, and Rumour (for it was he) launched into the introduction. As he described the various tales of the battle that he’d been telling, the characters appeared briefly on stage. Even as Northumberland is receiving the various versions that have been put about, we see Rumour priming the messengers with his stories, except for the last, who brings the truth – Rumour either avoids or misses him, and glides off stage. Wonderful staging.

Again, the story was well told, and I particularly enjoyed Falstaff’s scenes in the country, another area where previous productions had left me wondering why they bothered. This time, Justice Shallow and Silence were not so gaga and were able to give as good as they got, which made Falstaff’s final abandonment all the more poignant. The symmetry with the first play was evident, with amnesty being offered to the rebels and this time accepted, only for them to be betrayed.

The climax is Hal’s rejection of Falstaff, and this came across very well, with the Royal family members being on the top balcony, and Falstaff and his ‘friends’ below.

An excellent production, with very clear readings of both plays, and some brilliant ideas in the staging.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry IV part 1 – July 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th July 2006

This was great fun. As I watched both of these plays, matinee and evening, I was reminded of Ninagawa’s comments about British actors over-analysing their parts. Here the characters fell into place, especially during the tavern scenes. Instead of Hal and Falstaff’s role-playing having to carry many complex layers of meaningful performance, it was played as more of a jolly romp, with all of the tavern regulars joining in the fun. The extra meanings were still there, but they weren’t allowed to get in the way.

Again, the different accents meant I heard many of the lines more clearly, and some for the first time. The sets were not too detailed – there was a central block which rose or dropped to different levels to create a bed, table, floor or pit, while extra tables and chairs were whisked on and off pretty briskly to create the various scenes. The costumes were quite heavy, and must have been uncomfortable in the heat. They were more medieval romantic, with lots of fur trim, which was a bit of a throwback to old-fashioned Shakespearean productions, but they did the job.

All the performances were excellent. The young man playing Prince Hal apparently had a bad cold, which accounts for his slightly strange accent and occasional loss of power. Apart from that, he had a tendency to twitch and quiver at times of emotional stress, which I felt was unnecessary, but in all other ways he portrayed the character brilliantly. Hotspur’s fiery temperament was very clear, too, along with his tendency to ride roughshod over everyone, even his allies.

The bit parts were noticeably good – a Mistress Quickly from the Bronx was well matched with Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, all of whom would have fitted right in to New York street life. The poor drawer, Francis, was also much better than average, being not so much stupid as over-eager to please. That ‘comedy’ routine has never worked for me before, but this time I realised it was a forerunner to The Two Ronnies’ wordplay sketches, with Poins getting Francis to say “Anon, anon” in response to Prince Hal’s comments. It still shows an unpleasant side to Hal’s character, but at least this time there was some point to it.

Falstaff’s stealing of Hal’s glory was underplayed here, I thought, and then I checked the text. They played it to the letter. Other productions have made more of the incident, but it’s good to see a cast standing by Will’s version and not trying to over-interpret it. The reading of Falstaff’s papers, listing his copious consumption of sack, was dropped; not sure why, unless the old English monetary references would have been too much.

We’ve decided if we ever get to Chicago, we want to visit this company and see their work again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me