—Falstaff (Dean Paul). Photo: David Cooper
Errol Durbach’s adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV into a single play is clever and elegant, and in Glynis Leyshon it finds a sympathetic director. Part One of Henry IV is a magnificent play; Part Two not so much. Durbach’s Falstaff manages to salvage the best parts of Two and seamlessly weave them with One into one very fine play. Its title is slightly mystifying because it remains primarily an examination of Prince Hal’s education and his ascension to manhood and kingship. Leyshon’s production errs a little on the side of Falstaffian excess in Hal’s tavern scenes but ultimately finds the balance Shakespeare requires.
Falstaff is of course one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, and Dean Paul Gibson nicely humanizes Fat Jack (his Falstaff isn’t even really very fat) without sacrificing any of his outrageousness. Gibson is particularly effective in two of the play’s best scenes: in the tavern where he and Hal switch roles in rehearsing the meeting at court between King Henry and Hal, and on the battlefield with his motley recruits, acknowledging with just a note of guilty astonishment the extent to which they are merely cannon fodder—“food for powder.”
Alessandro Juliani, who makes such an effective, noble Henry V in Bard’s other Studio tent show, goes a little off the rails here as Hal. Hal genuinely enjoys his delinquency, sowing his wild oats in the tavern alongside Falstaff and the gang, learning the ways of the common people—knowledge that he’ll use to great effect when he becomes king—and having fun doing it. But Hal is cool; he always maintains a slight distance from the commoners even while immersing himself in their commonness. And his soliloquy explaining (or just rationalizing) his sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing routine should be shocking, chilling.
Juliani’s Hal is anything but cool. His Eastcheap romps are self-consciously goofy. He laughs at his own antics and practically high-fives his tavern buddies. And the great soliloquy (“I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyok’d humour of your idleness…”) lacks conviction. For the first half of the play Hal’s double, Hotspur, appears much more attractive, especially in Bob Frazer’s charismatic performance. Shakespeare rigs the game in the second half: Hotspur turns out to be a self-destructive hothead while Hal bides his time and takes Hotspur’s honour (along with his life). Juliani is much more effective as the Hal who has decided to grow up. But for a while there it’s touch and go.
Leyshon gets strong work from Duncan Fraser as the stern Chief Justice and Kevin McNulty as King Henry IV. She also beautifully overlaps the tavern and court scenes so as to suggest the complementary nature of the two worlds of Hal’s experience. But on Pam Johnson’s bare set I missed the visual contrast you might get from establishing court and tavern as distinctly separate locations.
The battle scenes, courtesy of fight director Nick Harrison and choreographer Treena Stubel, are very effective. And the battlefield is the setting for the production’s funniest, most horrifying and memorable sequence, a vision right out of Catch-22. An uncredited actor, hooded like a monk, drags himself across the stage on two crutches. Barely able to walk, literally collapsing under the weight of his gun, he is one of Falstaff’s recruits, a soldier in the field because he hasn’t the money to buy his way out of combat. He may not be able to stand, much less shoot, but he’s “good enough to toss; food for powder.”