Two Minutes' Traffic: Henry IV Part One, Folger Theatre

The hardest part of staging Shakespeare's history plays (my absolute favorite part of the canon) is navigating the strange, revealing, contradictory manner of their relationship with history and each other. Most theatre goers have a good sense of Richard III (the evil one!) and probably Henry V (good battles, good speeches, some strange business near the end with a leek). Of the rest, Henry IV Part One is probably the most familiar, seeing as how large a shadow Falstaff has cast in the popular imagination over the centuries. But as the title suggests, it's only part of a larger story, and every production has to make choices for how to balance its place in a larger narrative with a satisfying, stand-alone night at the theatre. These concerns arise even when played in repertory with other history plays; there's no guarantee that anyone sitting in the theatre intends to come back for Part Two, and heaven help the folks who only sign up for Part One. Shakespeare's own audiences would obviously have more familiarity than most of us do today with the ins and out of the actual historical record, but he does take care to structure each play with care so that even his most distractable audience members could follow the story and feel satisfied by the end of the play.

Rosa Joshi's production for the Folger, which opens this week, has to rely on that quality of Shakespeare's writing, as her production has no Part Two to complete the narrative. It does so with a startling assumption to those of us who know the Henriad in its entirety: it essentially pretends that Part Two doesn't exist, and that Hal's journey from layabout to king is all but accomplished by the time he heads to the palace for his royal dressing down from Henry IV. If the prince tells the audience that this is precisely his plan, to purposefully slum it for a time so that his supposed-reformation lends him more renown, why can't this be a successful tactic to pursue? Avery Whitted is an able actor, and he has a wonderful Hotspur in Tyler Fauntleroy and Falstaff in Edward Gero to play off of.

Unfortunately, Joshi's production belies the attraction of this approach, as it ultimately robs the play  of its emotional core. Part Two gives us Hal's relapse into tavern life and small beer, and the difficulty of achieving actual connection with his dying father compounded by the inevitable rising tension of Falstaff's position in the heir to the throne's life; we don't have to see these moments to feel their impact in Part One when we are allowed to see signs of the struggle brewing already. Whitted's Hal, by contrast, arrives at the palace and is ready to be the noble son Henry Bolingbroke always dreamed of. When Hal and Hotspur have their climactic fight, there's no sense that Hal has anything left to prove, or that he can't walk away from the fight and earn a slap on the back from his old man and a "we'll get him next time, son."  The future Henry V is a character always on the precipice of ruin, whether it's a future as a layabout wastrel, a disappointment to his father, or a disastrous war on foreign soil, but that's not who we see onstage at the Folger.  There's a lot that does work in this 1H4, but by ignoring the parts of the larger narrative that don't make it explicitly onstage in the text, the audience loses the stakes in a central character, which is a great shame.


Popular Posts