Fathers, Sons, and Dynastic Struggle: HENRY IV, PART I at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I (1597), now being revived by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, is at its heart a family story. It certainly bears the traditional characteristics of Shakespeare's history plays, but it is, first and foremost, a story of two fathers and two sons, and only secondarily about dynastic struggles.
The literal father and son are the eponymous Henry IV (Ron Heneghan) and his son Henry (nicknamed Hal), the future Henry V (Séamus Miller) (pictured together above). Sir John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess) acts as Hal's surrogate father, while Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur (Gerrad Alex Taylor), serves for a time as Henry IV's surrogate son.
As things start out, in September 1402, the surrogate relationships are the stronger ones. Hotspur, in winning for the Crown the Battle of Homildon Hill against some Scottish raiders, has rendered what amounts to a filial service for King Henry, and is appreciated by Henry in terms that explicitly draw a contrast between warlike Hotspur and his wastrel son Hal, entirely to Hal's disadvantage. Hal, in the meantime, is depicted as a habitué of the Boar's Head Inn, Eastcheap, evidently a dive for Plantagenet-era lowlifes led by the dissolute, fat, dishonest, and drunk - but somehow still endearing - Falstaff, who functions at this point as Hal's real father-figure. (This production amusingly sketches the sketchiness of the Boar's Head with some introductory business not called for in the script, to wit various members of the Falstaff crew sleeping off a bender, and trollop Doll Tearsheet (Ashly Fishell-Shaffer) crawling out of someone's bed as various bottles are surreptitiously swigged.)
If everyone were happy with the state of either surrogate father-son pairing, there would be no drama, but in fact there is trouble in both paradises. Biological relationships immediately begin to exert what will prove in the end to be irresistible pulls, and the play's action can be seen as biology reasserting itself across the board. For each son, paternity becomes destiny.
For Hal and Falstaff, the problem is that Hal knows he is destined to be king, and that he cannot go on as he is doing. Falstaff is spinning fantasies of an England run for the rogues' benefit once Hal is king; Hal puts him on notice that will not happen, prophesying that Falstaff will be hanged for thievery. (Later on, in Henry V, Hal will actually have his and Falstaff's pal Bardolph (portrayed here by Scott Alan Small) hanged for that very reason - although Shakespeare's original audience could not have known that outcome yet, as Bardolph was a purely invented character, and Henry V would not be written or performed until a year or so later.) As for himself, Hal expresses the resolution to reform and "throw off" his "loose behavior," which implies throwing off Falstaff.
Meanwhile, there are at least two major stressors in the relationship between Henry and Hotspur. One, limned from the first line of the play onwards, is the instability and questionable legitimacy of Henry's regime. Shakespeare's audience would have known - and would have been reminded by the then-recent production (1595) of Richard II, which chronicled the tale - that Henry's claim to the throne was tainted by his having overthrown Richard, an anointed king, to achieve it, after which Richard all-too-conveniently was murdered in prison. (Chesapeake Shakespeare Company audiences should likewise have been reminded by its 2014 rendering of Richard II.) Notwithstanding that Henry was anointed and crowned himself, his effort to convince the world and himself and even his God that he is more than just one momentarily successful baron in the endless Game of Thrones that English nobility was then playing, that he was permanently legitimate, in other words, is far from won. Henry speaks here of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; in Richard II the point of the pilgrimage was more explicitly described as being "to wash [Richard's] blood from off my guilty hand." And that Hotspur sees the same illegitimacy is made explicit; Hotspur comments to his kinsmen that they should never have engaged "in an unjust behalf .. to put down Richard, that lovely rose."
The other stressor is the pull of faction; Hotspur is a member of the Percy clan and married into the Mortimer clan (both derived from a branch of royalty collateral to Henry's Lancastrian dynasty), and by both of those ties is institutionally saddled with family claims on his loyalties stronger than Henry's claims, and a tenuously-held crown claimed with questionable legitimacy will not change that.
Add to these traits that Hotspur is, as his nickname suggests, a bit of a hothead. Ultimately, Hotspur will act in favor of his own family's interests; unfortunately for him, his family will prove less loyal to him than he does to them.
The flashpoint between Henry and Hotspur is Henry's demand for the valuable prisoners Hotspur took at Homildon Hill; if the victory was really a victory for the Crown and Henry's dynasty, then Henry reasons the prisoners (and the ransom money they may fetch) should have been his, though taken by proxy; if they are not yielded, Hotspur is showing his lack of loyalty to the Crown - and his unfitness to be a son-figure. It gives little away to say that the prisoners are not yielded up.
Between Falstaff and Hal, the sundering of surrogate ties is subtler. Falstaff organizes the tavern crew into a loose band of highwaymen who prey on a group of travelers at Gad's Hill near Rochester, and Hal's response is to victimize the victimizers covertly, restore the purloined loot to its owners, and humiliate Falstaff. In one of Shakespeare's great comic scenes, the humiliation is carried out gently and with humor, and Falstaff responds to his unmasking with mendacious effrontery that concedes no embarrassment, but the fact remains that Falstaff's delinquencies are now being thwarted, identified, and reproved, and by the person he loves like a son. And then war comes, and the tavern crew are pressed into military service which will require them to behave less antisocially, at least for the moment. (Fun fact: Charles Dickens later lived at the approximate spot of the fictional robbery.)
By the end of the play, Hal seems to have completed his movement back to his real father, and Henry to have completely reconciled with his real son. Hotspur and Falstaff are, or will be, the losers. How it all will work out remains to be seen in Henry IV, Part II, which will be staged by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company next month, including three days in repertory with Part I.
Meanwhile, we have this mounting of this play standing by itself. Ian Gallanar's direction is strong and subtle. Everything is dedicated to the service of the emotional through-lines of the show, and in many places, this extends to what is not in the script, like the above-mentioned business with Doll Tearsheet. We feel the structure imposed by the great quadrangle of fathers and sons even when only one or none of them is onstage. At the same time, the characters are no mere counters or avatars, but at every moment leap to life.
I need to say a word about Hotspur in this connection; he is not normally presented the way Gallanar and Gerrad Alex Taylor give him to us. This Hotspur is in a near-constant rage. He exhibits next to no affability, even in the scene where he bids farewell to his wife Kate (Elana Michelle) as he rides off to war. This is startling, because Hotspur is usually made a foil to Hal by endowing him with a personal magnetism similar to Hal's, and a playful mien at least around Kate. This Hotspur shouts, glares, and throws furniture around so abruptly the person in the seat next to me jumped. Yet I have to acknowledge that the words in the script give him license to be that way, leaving the nice-guy glamor to Hal. I'm not sure I'd make the same choice, but I have to acknowledge this Hotspur is a revelation. Certainly Taylor plays him with steady conviction, doing nothing, except maybe the slightest little softening at the end of his scene with his wife, to vary his imposing choler.
In any case, Miller's Hal picks up the affability slack, constantly flashing a confident grin, never being truly mean but never giving everything away either. With a sort of sweater around his neck, he looks like a preppie prince, protected by his dad's money and status. But you can also see on this Hal's face full foreknowledge of the transition he must make, even though he goes on enjoying the moment.
Ron Heneghan, whose work I've admired before, for instance as Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days at CSC, gives us a particularly sympathetic Henry IV, a sort of every-father dealing with Junior's failure to launch, while privately wrestling with his own more grown-up issues (although most dads don't number among such issues a guilty conscience for ousting a legitimate king and the need to put down an armed rebellion). And the relief he shows when it becomes clear to him that Hal is going to be a credit to the family after all is the kind of thing any father could identify with, lucidly enacted.
The break with Hal that Falstaff will have to face in Part II has not happened yet, and so Falstaff's biggest moments are yet to come, but Burgess slays with the moments he's given. The underlying text before the characters troop off to war is Falstaff's constant and fully-justified anxiety that he may be losing his hold over Hal, but the only way he can express it is in jest, and jest he does. It's a delight to watch his eyes twinkle as if he were in the moment coming up with comical ways of probing Hal's constancy to him, particularly in the dialogues in which he and Hal war-game Hal's upcoming confrontations with his real father. And afterwards, Falstaff's cowardice followed by outlandish claims of valor, punctuated by humorous meditations on the limitations of martial honor, seem fresh and spontaneous.
The rest of the Boar's Head revelers also deserve a mention: Bardolph, Doll Tearsheet, Poins (Lance Bankerd), Peto (Kathryne Daniels), Mistress Quickly (Tamieka Chavis), Pistol (Gregory Michael Atkin) (not actually a character in the original Part I), and a Vintner (Brianna Manente) who has but one speech in the original text but here hangs around to swell the chorus. Collectively, this team, slightly larger than the one Shakespeare called for, imbue the proceedings with a lovely festive spirit, binding them all together as Hal's brothers and sisters in Falstaff's quasi-family. Their liveliness understandably attracts Hal, making more striking his gradual transition to the circle of his grim and guilt-stricken father.
The family drama played out with these dynamics and forces is limned with some of Shakespeare's finest and funniest writing. But Gallanar's lively direction makes it frequently sizzle.
The one thing in this show that to my mind misfires is the battle scene, and let me state immediately that I'm not even confident it worked properly in Shakespeare's time. A battle is by definition an event involving many people, and the stage cannot put that number of performers before an audience. The temptation, to which Shakespeare often succumbed, is to scale it down to a small number of individual combats, typically in the course of which the two characters who matter most come face-to-face - notwithstanding that they are nobles or royalty who would be protected as a matter of course in a real battle. By the time one of them is required to engage in individual combat, the battle would probably be lost, and the other of them would not be expected or probably allowed to fight personally.
But yet Shakespeare keeps giving us this mythical convention. Think Macbeth and Macduff, Richard III and Richmond, and here Hal and Hotspur. The unconvincingness of this device was oddly underscored here by the hyperrealistic combat staged by fight choreographer Casey Kaleba. Indeed, sitting in the first row, at what amounted to a ringside seat, I confess to having been a little nervous for myself, but even more for the actors because the hardware the two antagonists were slinging so quickly and so nearby looked and sounded convincingly lethal. So we had hyperrealism in support of a myth. I'm not sure how a director fixes this endemic Shakespearean problem, or that it has ever been fixed on any stage. In any case, it went conspicuously unfixed here. (Note: Piping in the occasional noises of a larger battle doesn't solve the problem.)
But I wouldn't make too much of a few misfiring minutes in the context of an overall triumph. This remains a splendid rendering of a splendid play. I am already looking forward eagerly to seeing Part II next month. And I'm in high hopes there will be a Henry V from this troupe in the not-too-distant future, continuing this cast.
Henry IV, Part I, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ian Gallanar, through April 7 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $31-$55 at email@example.com. Intense stage violence with realistic weapons.
Image by C. Stanley Photography