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

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