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An interview with a Falstaff

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Did you find Henry IV, Part 2, particularly challenging compared to the other two, because Falstaff seems to stumble from one situation to another?

I felt I was very at home in Part 1. I felt like putting on Part 1 was a hugely comfortable thing for me.

Was that because of your awareness of it?

I think it was because I love the play. I just think it’s beautifully written, beautifully balanced. You have Hal and Hotspur balanced off against each other, you have Henry and Falstaff balanced off against each other, you’ve got that tour de force tavern scene where you get to do all this performing and Hal performs and Falstaff performs and there’s balancing there, as well. You get the great opening scene between Hal and Falstaff, not that it opens the play but their opening scene, is a marvelous communication of a loving relationship. Ralph was great when we did that scene; he said to me and to Luke, “You can go 180 degrees, and you should. You should say things that sound bitter, angry, and so hateful, and in the next minute, you’re just completely loving.” It was one of the most helpful pieces of direction he gave me because I don’t think I was willing to push to that extreme all the time, I was trying to maintain the love under the anger. But, of course, when real love is there, you cease to worry about that. You know you’re going to come back to love, so you can be as pissed as you like.

It’s funny how I answer Part 2 by going back to Part 1. Part 2 was much more challenging for me in that I didn’t know the play at the same depth that I knew Part 1, and also I think the age factor is more present, highlighted. It’s funny because I had done Lear not long before, and I’d done Titus Andronicus in the same season, and Titus is an older character and his age is an issue, but he’s Roman old, too, you know what I mean? So he may not be all that old and he’s also a warrior and still a very capable individual. Lear is supposedly in his 80s; we didn’t worry so much about that age. We conceived him as more in his 60s or something; we took out the line “four score and upward” in our production, but I had thought about age a lot for that, and Jim Warren, who directed that production, said to me when we were talking about age, “What I want you to do is take away youth. I don’t want you to try to play age, I want you to think about how do you remove youth.” It was helpful, and this is why, when you work with a director year after year, they get good at talking with you. At least Jim is really good at talking to actors, different actors in different ways. I think it’s one of his real strengths as a director. I think of him as a real actor’s director; he listens to you, he’ll take your ideas. But he’ll also learn who you are and learns how best to communicate with you as an actor. At least I feel that. And it was a great, helpful thing for him to say to me. So I think that informed Falstaff in Part 2; it’s more like youth is being taken away from him, that he’s feeling it slip away, so that was helpful.

But the play is challenging because of scenes like that Pistol scene. I’m not doing anything. I’m sitting here watching all this. What is that about? There’s not the same connection with Hal throughout the play. And it was a new Hal, and Patrick and I are great, great friends, but I had gotten into a rhythm with Luke that worked real well for Part 1—I don’t know how anybody else perceived it, but for me it worked. I liked having Luke in that position. But I really liked Patrick, too, so I thought this will be great. But then as we were talking about it, I realized, my God! we have almost no time on stage together before you reject me really. So how do we, with no Part 1 for some of the audience—some of the audience will have seen Part 1 and they’re going to know Part 1, but some of them are not—how do we communicate all of that?

In the first part of the play, Luke and I had talked about “I do, I will,” because that’s the terrible moment in their performance where he basically tells Falstaff, “Here’s how this play is going to end, the play that is the play between you and me,” and he’s telling him the end of Part 2. He’s playing a king and he’s saying, “I do, I understand my position, and when I am in this position, I will.”┬áLuke and I talked about it, he was asking me what I thought about the scene, and I said “This is the crux of the scene; we have to communicate a lot with these lines and my response to them is important. This ‘I do, I will’ has to drop the bottom out of things. And the ‘I do’ has to be different from the ‘I will.’ The ‘I do’ can be part of the play [within the play] and the joke, but the ‘I will’ is not funny.

[In Part 2], Patrick and I came down to “Falstaff, good night.” Hal comes into that one scene in 2.4; he’s there for a while and he plays a joke on Falstaff that’s not unlike the Gads Hill joke but not as good, he watches Falstaff with Doll, and then has this communication with Falstaff and then he’s called away. We thought about it the same way [as "I do, I will"], that “Falstaff” is one part, the “good night” is the other part. So, “Falstaff” is the look up, connect with each other, love—oh my God , I love you—and then “good night” is goodbye. Falstaff can’t hear it as that, but Hal has to understand it that way. Then Falstaff gets to say that great thing right after that: “Now comes in the sweetest morsel of the night, and we must hence and leave it unpicked.” He doesn’t get it; he thinks it’s just good night. But it’s the big good night instead. Hal says it with a consciousness that Falstaff can’t have. At least, theatrically, we thought of it that way; the audience has to read that Hal is saying good night in a profounder way and Falstaff doesn’t hear it at all. I just lifted my glass like, “See you later.”

I’ll tell you the part of Part 2 that I had thought about and I knew a lot about going in and that’s the final scene. I had thought and thought and thought about what happens in this final scene with this confrontation. The only thing I knew was that Falstaff was not going to be able to believe this, that it had to be like he’s waiting for the joke, that there’s a joke in this, that the guy is in a crown and he’s in a big cape, but the joke is coming. “I know, you’re having me on.” And when it doesn’t come, the only thing I knew was that it had to be signaled—Falstaff’s acceptance of it had to be signaled physically, so it had to be a moment where you see it hit his body. That was the only thing I knew going in.

Then I had the gift of the epilogue. I knew the epilogue was there; I’d always sort of known about it from reading the play. But we had the Blackfriars Conference in the year that we did Part 1 and Merry Wives, and one of the scholars in the Blackfriars Conference did a piece on Will Kemp saying this epilogue, so he asked me to perform it in the fat suit. I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” We’re sort of enlisted to help scholars, and I said sure because I was directed to say sure. But I was also eager to do it and interested in it. When I got finished doing it, Ralph and I looked at each other and we’re like, “Well, we’ve definitely got to do this.” Then some other happy things happened with that in the course of rehearsal, so that it grew into something I think very special, and it has particular special elements for me.

But I will say I was not as comfortable in Part 2 as in Part 1. I wasn’t as sure of myself going into the scenes, and I think part of it has to do with the fact that Falstaff is left of center in a lot of the scenes where in the past he would have been center. When he is in the tavern, Pistol’s in the center of a lot of that scene where Falstaff normally would be. When he’s getting his recruits and talking about his army, Shallow is in the center of the scene where normally Falstaff would be, and Shallow’s responsible for a lot of the energy, and Falstaff is responsible to watch, appreciate, and comment and respond to these individuals.

Then in the Gloucester banquet, it’s first Shallow and then Pistol.
It is interesting. He’s on the way out. It’s like he’s off center, he’s off the center of things, and the energy of the play is almost carrying him out, away from the center of things.

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