Back some years ago, probably before we had kids, my wife and I saw Henry IV Part 1 at Bakersfield College, with the usual suspects (and theater professors) Bob Kempf in the role of Falstaff and Randall Messick as Owen Glendower. Either before or after (I forget which), I read through Part 1. Later, I added Part 2 to the list of plays I have at least read. I do not believe I had ever seen Part 2 in live performance.
The last few years, since the kids got a bit older, my wife and I taken a series of quick overnight trips to Los Angeles (a mere two hours away), for some sort of arts-related fun. (Past trips have included Porgy and Bess at the LA Opera, Phantom of the Opera, and Hamilton at the Pantages.) We were poking around for ideas for this year, when my wife ran across the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of the Henry IV plays in a conflated and edited version.
With Tom Hanks as Falstaff. Yes, that Tom Hanks.
So what if the only pairs of adjacent tickets were in the back row? It’s a small outdoor theater, and this is the sort of thing you just do when you can.
Scholars differ as to exactly what Shakespeare intended regarding the second play. Was it a sequel made necessary because of the runaway success of Part 1 in general and the character of Sir John Falstaff in particular? Or was a second part always planned? Whatever the case, Falstaff took on a life of his own, eventually getting a play all his own, The Merry Wives of Windsor.
As others have noted before, the Henry IV plays are really about just about anyone other than Henry IV, who is truly a minor character in the play. One could consider there to be a trilogy of Henry V plays, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt and the most epic pregame speech in literature. One could view Part 1 as the tragedy of Hotspur. Or you could view all that political nonsense and battle baloney as filler surrounding a series of Falstaff comedies. Ultimately, what you view as the center of the plays determines the approach you take, and the artistic decisions you make.
In this case, those decisions are even more pronounced because of the decision to conflate the plays. This would obviously require shortening, as a five or six hour version would be too taxing on both the audience and the actors. So, what to cut?
Daniel Sullivan (who also directed), chose to pare away most of the military strategy, some of the material involving Hotspur, everything with Owen Glendower (see below) involved, and quite a few pages of dialogue. The battle scenes are truncated and simplified. Even so, the runtime (with 15 minutes of intermission) was still nearly three and a half hours. I am a committed Shakespeare fan, so I do mind when stuff is cut, even though few productions these days seem to include every last line. But I agree that there was no good way to preserve everything in this case.
Sullivan therefore retains all of the Falstaff scenes; focuses on the drama with Prince Hal, Hotspur, and King Henry; and lets the history part of the play (which is, admittedly, the least relevant to 21st Century American audiences) fade to background noise. I would say that the parts I missed most were the Glendower and Hotspur scene (which is fantastic - and what better insult than to say the earth farted when Glendower was born...) and the explanation of Falstaff’s perfidy in sending unequipped “soldiers” to their deaths.
But, quibbles aside, the edited and conflated version was indeed coherent and focused, and I feel the cuts were defensible.
Now, about the production and the acting. Like the other Shakespeare production involving a fairly famous screen actor we have seen (Richard II, featuring Robert Sean Leonard), the sets and props were minimalist. Nothing fancy, no special effects, just basics enough to let the acting shine through. As much as I have enjoyed amazing stage effects in various productions, I do rather approve of bare-bones Shakespeare. The play’s the thing, after all, and it succeeds or fails on the strength of the acting.
In general, the acting was excellent in this production. I’m not surprised, of course. In Los Angeles (as in New York City, I expect), there are too many outstanding actors for the number of available parts as it is, so mainstream productions never lack for sufficient talent. The various bit parts were handled well, and I can’t really think of any sour notes.
The one part that seemed a bit out of place to me was Joe Morton’s Henry IV. You may have seen Morton in Scandal and Terminator 2 and other big and small screen productions. The thing is, he has a great voice for the part, and formidable gravitas. What was just a bit off (in my view) was the delivery. In retrospect, I wonder if this is an example of the controversy on how to deal with enjambment. If a sentence is carried over to the next line without a comma, do you pause at the end of the line? How long? (I highly recommend The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum if you want an extended discussion of the schools of thought on this.) I am pretty sure that Morton was observing the pause in each case, in contrast with the other actors, who generally used a more flowing, conversational tone. This did have the effect of making him sound more formal, but it also felt kind of weird, almost like he was trying to remember a word in his line, once in a while. (Clearly this was not the case - the pauses happened at the specific point: the end of the line, not randomly.) I personally found this to be a bit distracting, although I’m sure those on the other side of the enjambment argument will likely disagree.
A number of actors played multiple parts, as the two Henry plays have different supporting characters. Raffi Barsoumian brought a manic energy to Hotspur - really a fine portrayal of both his strengths and weaknesses - as well as a broad bawdiness and uncontrolled violence to Pistol in the second part.
Josh Clark was notable as Worcester (Hotspur’s uncle) in the first part - a consummately professional and Shakespearean performance. He is a long-time veteran of the stage, so no surprise. He also covered the part of the Chief Justice in Part 2.
The Henry plays are really sparse on female parts, but Rondi Reed (as Mistress Quickly) and Emily Swallow (in a dual role as Lady Percy and prostitute Doll Tearsheet) made the most of the limited lines they had.
Another key part - Poins - was portrayed excellently by Chris Rivera. I enjoyed his work in this one.
But, the real question for Henry always comes down to Hal and Falstaff. If they have chemistry, the play works. If they don’t? Not so much.
In this production, Hal was played by Hamish Linklater. It is no minor task to appear opposite Tom Hanks, to say the least. But Linklater was excellent. Good stage presence, great body language, a verve to his lines, and great chemistry with his counterpart.
It is always a risk going to see a movie star on stage. Some really shine, and others...don’t. This isn’t a knock on them. It takes a different set of skills to play to a closely placed camera, and a rather different set to carry emotion out a hundred feet to the cheap seats.
Hanks is one of the rare actors who is fantastic at both. From the opening scene (the editing placed him at the first and last scenes on stage), he owned the stage. Hidden under a fat suit, long hair, and grey beard, he didn’t look obviously like the Tom Hanks everyone knows. But you could tell as soon as he spoke who it was.
The best things about the performance were things I didn’t entirely expect. First, Hanks is superb at the physical side of acting. He truly inhabited the character - fat, old, dissipated, bawdy, vulgar. When he walked, he looked truly obese - not just a guy in a fat suit. When others helped him up, he sold it. When he fell, he made it look painful. The character didn’t crack until the final bows, when he bounced up on stage like he had taken off the body of his character. Just remarkable.
The other thing that surprised me was the way he handled the language of Shakespeare. I knew he had trained for the stage, so I expected he wouldn’t be awkward. But he might have been formal in his delivery.
Not so. Of all the actors in this production, he seemed the most at home in the Shakespeare vernacular, to the point where it was easy to forget he was speaking Elizabethan English. It truly sounded like he was speaking naturally, the way Falstaff himself might have spoken. All those archaic words, all those iambs. It just rolled off his tongue, modulated in volume and inflection as natural language. It was truly fascinating to watch. It looked so easy. And it looked like he was having fun.
I guess that makes sense. Hanks has made more money than he will ever need. He has won a boatload of awards. He might be one of the most famous people in the world. There is no compelling reason why he would need to spend a summer playing a 400 year old stage work to a few hundred people a night. I imagine he did this because he thought that playing Falstaff would be a whole lot of fun - so he did.
In any event, for me, it was that delightful experience of seeing a master of his or her craft at work, making art for the sheer pleasure of it.
Poins (Chris Rivera), Prince Hal (Hamish Linklater), and Falstaff (Tom Hanks)
On Owen Glendower:
It occurs to me that, before there was the Magical Negro, before the Wise Indian Shaman/Chief, there was the Mystical Welshman, aka Owen Glendower. In retrospect, it is kind of funny how much the ideas have in common. The tribal culture, weird primitive dress, the mystical religion, the “crazy like a fox” vibe. And, of course, the way the character is used as either an aid or foil of the main, “civilized white” characters.
Of course, this being Shakespeare, Glendower is more than just a foil. He is a bit of a cautionary tale. One of Hotspur’s fatal mistakes is to get into a “hand measuring” contest with Glendower, rather than solidifying his alliance. We are left to speculate whether Hotspur might have won the day had he played his diplomatic hand better.
On a very tangentially related note, Amanda and I have also made a tradition of unwinding after a performance and talking over our thoughts while sipping cocktails. The first time was inspired by the tiny hotel bar at Maison 140 (former home of Lillian and Dorothy Gish), where we stayed after Porgy and Bess. Amanda wore one of her flapper dresses, so an absinthe was perfect. Then, we discovered The Pikey, a quirky British-style night spot just down Sunset from our hotel.
This time, since we were in West LA, we figured we would try to discover a cool spot on that side of town. Amanda’s skill with a smartphone and excellent instincts led us to Bibo Ergo Sum, next door to Cedars Sinai hospital. (Yeah, how cool of a name is that?) It was practically deserted late on a Sunday night, so we got very attentive service. And truly craft cocktails. I am still thinking about that rye whiskey sour. If you are in the area and want a place with a good vibe and skillfully made classic cocktails, give it a try.