The American Shakespeare Center has released the next two plays from their Renaissance Season for BlkFrsTV (streaming videos of the shows that would have otherwise be playing in the BlackFrairs Theatre in Staunton, VA): Henry IV, Part 1 & 2. We had planned to attend the shows but instead have watched them on-line.
A year ago, they produced Henry IV, Part 1, featuring Brandon Carter and K.P. Powell as Prince Hal and Henry Percy (aka Hotspur). We were thrilled to learn that they had contracted with both to return this year to reprise their roles, and add Henry IV, Part 2 (spoiler alert, Hotspur does not make it past Henry IV, Part 1, but fortunately, K.P. does, as another rebel, country person, et al, but more on that later).
I would usually envision Shakespeare’s history plays a filled with large groups: kings and rebels with their retinue, tavern maids and owners with their patrons, and various country folk trying to live common lives amidst the conflicts of the ruling class. Lots of royalty, soldiers, and common folks will be dead on and off stage before the show ends.
While this production does have mass gatherings (seeming more than 10 people in one place, which takes on a eerie feeling in Covid19 sheltering in place), but the cast emphasizes the intimate moments that drive this play. History will play itself out, according to the script, but I felt that we were seeing the behind the scenes interactions which develop, define, and possibly destroy various characters by the final curtain (oh, this is getting a bit Covid19eque).
One does not even get to the actual show to see one of these events. A tradition in Elizabethan theatre, and the Blackfriars Theatre productions, is to have music before the show (and during intermission). BlkfrsTV brings you all that just as we would have seen it in the theatre. These songs are popular music from he 1950’s to the present time, selected for how they relate to the shows. The last song before Henry VI, Part 1 had Prince Hal singing Montell Jordan’s house music, “This Is How We Do It“. While Brandon is leading everyone (if there were an audience, we would all be singing, waving our hands in the air) in a party romp, Hotspur suddenly brakes in with Kendrick Lamar’s, “DNA” (hey, I looked these up on YouTube to verify my sources… I don’t actually listen to this style of music at home!). Back and forth they go. Prince Hal in the tavern with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and their companions in Eastcheap, intruded on by the rebel Hotspur, rapping about this is in his DNA. Brandon wears an ASC T-Shirt sporting “Hotspur Sucketh”. Hilarious. Back and forth they go in their musical battle, even tossing in a precisely executed social distancing joke.
In another scene, Hotspur and his wife, Lady Percy (Constance Swain) flirt with rebellion and each other. Hostpur, always ranting about gathering his forces against the crown, is warned by his wife that he is neglecting her. She comes out wearing one of his dress-shirts, at not much else. She is a tangle of seduction in her eyes, hands, and legs, as confrontational as his military ambitions. She wins this battle… off stage.
The tavern is the barracks for Sir John Falstaff (John Harrell) and his pals, including Prince Hal. Always in need of quick money, they plan to rob a group of pilgrims. Hal and Poins (Jessika D. Williams) counter-plot to steal the stolen goods from Falstaff. They then set up Falstaff to boast of how many he fought off, in ever increase graphic numbers, about how his and his friends lost the money. Hal and Poins take turns tossing the ball back and forth, like 1st and 2nd basemen catching a slow base stealer in a game of pickle.
Later, Falstaff and Hall have an familial moment when Falstaff climbs to a pretend throne on top of a table, dons a pillow for a crown, and his mangled sword for scepter. He and Hal play out how the king will treat him for his revelry. And, when reversing the roles, Falstaff, now portraying the prince, counsels him on how to respond to his father. They are the mentor and the initiate. This is essentially a coming-of-age play for Prince Hal.
Before the battle ensues and Hal learns lessons of responsibility of leadership, we see another intimate scene with the rebel leaders. Lady Mortimer (Sylvie Davidson) comforts her husband, Emdund Mortimer (Benjamin Reed), singing in Welsch, while she gently strokes his hair as his head rests in her lap. For a moment, we are taken away from the meta-dynamics of challenges to the crown (Mortimer has claims to the throne), to see husband-and-wife out of time and place. (on a side note, not only can Sylvie sing beautifully, she can play the mandolin and trumpet in the same song, guitar in others, and if I recall correctly, bass elsewhere…and she dances… I’m not sure what she cannot do!)
A final intimate scene is when Prince Hal and Hotspur meet during the battle. Various soldiers and royalty and royal stand-in have passed across the stage, fighting and dying. Then the rivals, just as in the opening song, meet on stage. Falstaff lies in a heap (you will have to watch the play to see what happens later). Hal and Hotspur slash each other, with Hotspur eventually suffering more mortal wounds (sorry, K.P., but Brandon has to continue on for Henry IV, Part 2, then Henry V). But, victory has its sorrows. Yet, Hal has demonstrated that he can endeavor and endure. He will become a man and king. But, he realizes that this will be at the price of power: to have to destroy rivals. Revelry in the tavern only wounds one’s ego.
If Henry IV, Part 1 is portrayed as a series of intimate scenes, Henry IV, Part 2 jumps out at us as a series of open brawls. Action, action, action, from the epilogue to the prologue of Rumour (Jessika D. Williams). No wonder her tongue is weary by then end.
Falstaff (John Harrell) and his tavern buddies dominate this play (hey, Shakespeare knew when he had a good commodity which audience would come back to see). They seem to be constantly fighting over sack (aka, wine), Doll Tearsheet (Zoe Speas) and Mistress Quickly (Sylvie Davidson) (aka women), and song. The addition of Pistol’s (Christopher Johnston) swagger, heats up the tavern in ways one should leave one’s gun power at home (aka Johnny Cash song).
Prince Hal (Brandon Carter) no longer has Hotspur to contend with, but he does have his father, King Henry IV (David Anthony Lewis), and his younger brothers, Prince Thomas (Jessika D. Williams), Prince John (Constance Swain), and Prince Humphrey (Meg Rodgers), all who are more loyal and well behaved that Hall. This peaks in a scene in which Hal believes that Henry IV has died, takes the crown, and leaves to grieve. But, Henry is only sleeping. When he wakes with his other sons around, and the crown gone, accusations fly fast and furious.
And, if family tension were not enough, defeating the rebels and Hotspur does not resolve the military conflicts. Hotspur’s father, Earl of Northumberland (Ronald Roman-Melendez) becomes more furious when he receives conflicting reports of the battle’s outcome, then ultimately learns of Henry Percy’s death. Rage and revenge ensue.
The final brawl will be won by Prince Hal, now crowned at King Henry V. When Falstaff comes pandering, expecting rewards in honor and finances, Henry defies and denies him and his tavern cohorts. But, we are promised a return of Falstaff and Hal in Henry V.
We must return.