At Blackfriars Playhouse, we are nearing the end of its traditional Actors Renaissance Festival, in which the troupe of actors at the American Shakespeare Center stages a series of plays without the benefit of a director. These have included “Much Ado About Nothing,” “A King and No King” (going outside the Shakespearean oeuvre for Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher) and “Henry IV” (both parts I and II) — the Henry plays featuring Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters. Falstaff, the obese, lazy knight with “vanity in years . . . a sanguine coward” is an anti-hero, beloved precisely for his mischievous qualities. Last year at Blackfriars we enjoyed John Harrell’s excellent performance as the ignoble but immortal Sir John Falstaff being served his due by “The Merry Wives of Windsor;” this season we are delighted to see Mr. Harrell return in this role in the Henry plays in which Sir John originally appeared.
For movie viewers, actor and director Orson Welles has long embodied the role of Falstaff in his adaptation of the Henry plays entitled “Chimes at Midnight” (a title borrowed from Falstaff’s line in “Henry IV, Part 2”). Since we are now obliged to enjoy live plays on film (self-styled as “Blackfriars’ TV”), we could not but look for Wellesian influence in the filming, and we indeed found some in “Henry IV, Part I.” As Mr. Harrell as Falstaff and Brandon Carter as Prince Hal mimic King Henry IV for the amusement of each other, the camera angle from below makes it look like he Falstaff is looking down at us and we are looking up at him, for he is (in his jest) “the king.”
…the performances of the three principals playing Henry IV, Hal, and Falstaff in their parts which give such spirit and vivacity to ‘Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.’
When young Prince Hal imitates his father, however, we and the camera view him straight on, perhaps so that Falstaff (so much a part of the play at this point) is constantly in the picture. The production is very modern looking at first glance, with Falstaff wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and Oak Leaf wine cardboard boxes displayed prominently on stage. The pained look of Mr. Carter as Prince Hall when he realizes that he will one day banish his companion Falstaff in reality shows that this is a production taken by the cast with the utmost classical earnestness. For this reason, it is at this moment when the production really gains momentum.
Another moment which we particularly enjoyed in “Henry IV, Part 1” was the very effective scene in which the wayward son Hal faces his father’s anger and disappointment and swears movingly that he will redeem all of his past flaws and prove himself valiant against Hotspur. This scene, acted by Mr. Carter and David Anthony Lewis as the king, is made all the more poignant by the lack of props on the Blackfriars stage — especially when the camera pans back to reveal the empty seating areas (empty due to the current pandemic). Here we see in all its rawness the universal conflict of father and son at odds, at last coming to rapprochement. Before leaving this performance of “Part 1,” we must add praise for the priceless scene in which the coward Falstaff boasts of killing a major foe in battle — he has, of course, merely come upon the already slain body and desires full credit for the deed!
Moving on to the equally moving “Part 2,” an especially poignant scene again belongs (again) to Messrs. Lewis and Carter as father and son: they are in top form as leadership, kingship, and trust are passed from father to son, from generation to generation. The emotions brought forth by both actors are from the heart and to the point, transcending time, place, and whether the staging is traditional or modern.
Hal’s prediction from the previous play, of course, comes true: as the newly crowned King Henry V, he says to Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man!” and “I banish thee, on pain of death.” Here Falstaff’s crushed expression is one of the most emotional of either play, as he seeks to convince himself this is just a pose his old friend Hal has put on for public benefit. Yet Mr. Harrell’s performance of Falstaff’s barely being able to rise suggests he knows his old companion’s rejection and banishment to be true. The performance of such nuances in strained relationships between close friends and family members is what makes these performances of both of these Shakespearean history plays worthwhile and even extraordinary.
Meg Rodgers, Sylvie Davidson, Benjamin Reed, Ronald Román-Meléndez, and all the other Blackfriars players are wonderful, but it is the performances of the three principals playing Henry IV, Hal, and Falstaff in their parts which give such spirit and vivacity to “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” Both plays are streaming from Blackfriars Playhouse through May 3.
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