BWW Reviews: Shakespeare Theatre Company's HENRY IV, PART 1 is Well-Crafted and Magnificently Directed
A ripple of excitement could be felt throughout Sidney Harman Hall when at the end of Henry IV, Part 1's first scene Edward Gero's King Henry adjourns his court and an illuminated outline of England filled the darkened theater. From the first scene at court to the last at Shrewsbury, that feeling never once goes away in this production. The Shakespeare Theatre Company's well-crafted, well-acted and magnificently directed revival of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 is an exciting production perfect for a novice theatergoer or the most seasoned Shakespearean veteran.
Henry IV, Part 1 in effect is a battle, figuratively and literally, which takes place on three fields: Henry's court, the tavern and Shrewsbury. When the play opens, Henry is facing a rebellion at court with the Earl of Northumberland's son, surnamed Hotspur (John Keabler). They disagree over the fate of Scottish prisoners and after being insulted by Henry, Hotspur decides to lead a rebellion against the king. Meanwhile in a tavern, Henry's son Hal (Matthew Amendt), the Prince of Wales and next in line for the throne, is leading his own rebellion by not taking his royal duties seriously and gallivanting with the rotund knight Sir John Falstaff (Stacy Keach). Henry is troubled by this, rebuking him on the eve of Hotspur's rebellion in an effort to change Hal's ways, and secure his potential ascension to the throne. The final battle is that for England!
Director Michael Kahn and Set Designer Alexander Dodge have done something extremely clever with this production by having a subtle, at times bold, outline of England ever present on-stage. It's a reminder of what's at stake for King Henry and Prince Hal and what's fueling Hotspur's rage against the monarchy. For whatever else Henry IV, Part 1 may be it is, at its core, a fight for the survival and leadership of England.
Binding the three conflicts is Amendt's Hal. We first meet Hal in a tavern which also appears to serve as a brothel, not the proper environment for a future monarch. What's great about Amendt is the carefree and self-centered attitude (often found in teenagers) he has given Hal. His self-absorbed attitude is wisely accented by Ann Hould-Ward costumes which first have Hal sporting a goth/punk-style inspired leather jacket. When Hal realizes that the future of his father, throne and country are at stake, we see both his attitude and costume change into something more fitting for a prince.
Despite being the play's namesake, much of Henry IV, Part 1's storyline surrounds that of Hal and Falstaff, not Henry. However, that doesn't stop Gero from giving a commanding performance as Henry. With one calculating glance of his eyes Gero establishes the intensity with which Henry wants to keep the throne. At the same time, Gero is swiftly able to show a paternal side as when Henry admonishes Hal, both out of royal duty and paternal feelings, for his life choices late in Act I.
Falstaff may not be Hal's father, but the bond between the two men is certain. Keach is luminous as Falstaff! From his first appearance onstage to his last, Keach understands that he's to be the comedic relief and he excels in every moment. While overwhelming jolly and fat, Shakespeare has also given Falstaff the responsibility of discharging some of Henry IV, Part 1's most poignant observations, an area where Keach is at his best!
"What is honor," he asks on the battlefield with a corpse lying near his side. The simplicity and power of the moment isn't lost. Only great actors can switch from handling Henry IV, Part 1's comedy and drama with such ease and Keach is one of them!
As Hotspur, Keabler fills the young rogue with rage, selfishness and naiveté. Keabler's passion gives Hotspur an unpredictable nature which gives us reason to see why Henry is taking the rebellion seriously. The difference between Keabler's Hotspur and Amendt's Hal is interesting to watch unfold. Both have the qualities of leaders, but it's not until the epic Act II finale that we see the true caliber of each man.
What's excellent about Kahn's ability to shape the piece is the sweeping way with which he's able to tell the story. Henry IV, Part 1 is a piece filled with tavern jests and political intrigue, and yet Kahn is able to use both in terrific harmony. His staging never lingers and never loses momentum. In fact, from the first scene the audience feels as if it's being catapulted into the consequential struggle for England's future.
Adding to the struggle is Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet's fight direction which provides the production with an additional jolt of excitement. Dodge's set design heightens Kahn's direction, not only with the aforementioned outline of England, but a half-moon, wood-paneled set permeated with various entrance points allowing the actors to flow in and out of scenes. Composer Michael Roth's score provides the energy for the scene transitions adding a gravitas that refocuses the more humorous scenes into the more dramatic ones.
Hould-Ward's costumes are a traditional English style for most of the cast with the exception of Hal and Hotspur. Their costumes have a touch of modernity. It seems especially fitting for Hal and Hotspur, two men rebelling against authority to be more insolently dressed.
Henry IV, Part 1 is being performed in repertoire with Henry IV, Part 2 which is opening later this week. Perhaps there's no greater compliment to give the production then this: At the end of this production, I could hardly wait for Part 2 to begin!
Run time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission for Henry IV, Part 1. Both Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 are scheduled to play thru June 7th at The Shakespeare Theatre Company 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. To purchase tickets and for specific performance dates of each show, please call 202-547-1122 or purchase them online.