shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare



Henry IV, Part One

It's a (Wo)Man's World

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, The Meadow at Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum and Library, Baltimore, Maryland
Saturday, August 1, 2015, lawn at the center front of play space
Directed by Thomas Delise

Hal in a vest with purple, gold, and red patches intended to look like chain mail with a black sword belt around her waist holds a pewter mug in her hand. Trees are in the background.
Ann Turiano as Prince Hal in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's outdoor production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. Below, Kay-Megan Washington as Falstaff. Photos by Will Kirk, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, is a play full of insults. Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur hurl putdowns with every other breath, and, obliquely, so does King Henry. One insult used more often than most—the word and its ilk appear six times in such manner—is woman.

I'd never noticed that before I saw this play performed by a cast comprised entirely of women in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's outdoor production in a meadow on the property of the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum and Library. In costume, these women call each other women with the same taint that women in everyday life might call each other whore or bitch. It's possible, too, that these actresses made the insult particularly noticeable because they might themselves be insulted that their gender is deemed an insult by the men they are playing—and by the women they are playing, too: When Falstaff tells the Hostess, "Go to, you are a woman, go," she replies, "Who, I? no; I defy thee: God's light, I was never called so in mine own house before."

If such discoveries are part of the point of such stunt casting, then mission accomplished. Yet, this production accomplishes a much greater mission by demonstrating in the very text-centric playing of a mostly uncut script how Henry IV, Part One, is one of Shakespeare's most brilliant works.

Shakespeare is subjected to trends, and not only is Henry IV, Part One, riding a rising tide of popularity—this is the sixth production of the play we've seen in the past two years, third in the past month—using an all-female cast to play it seems to be the current it thing to do. This production is the first of three all-women-casted Henry IV's on our agenda: Brave Spirits is planning one this fall in Washington, D.C., and Donmar Warehouse's production is coming to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in November (furthermore, both the DruidShakespeare and Smith Street Stage productions we saw this summer cast women as Henry and Hal).

What such purposed casting is supposed to yield with this play, other than seeing women wielding swords, I'm not sure. For Director Tom Delise, founding artistic director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF), the purpose has more to do with available talent and championing equal opportunity than making any extra-contextual statement with the play. "At BSF, we want to experiment and see what connections our women can draw from this wonderful play," he writes in his program notes. "The plays of Shakespeare are a great gift to the world—not just to the men of the world. The time is long past for our women to play these marvelous roles." Delise often casts women as men—just not to this extreme—but in those instances as well as in other all-female-cast Shakespeare plays I've seen, the women tended to act like men in tone, expression, gait, and mannerisms. In this Henry IV, Part One, the actresses don't go to much effort to lose their gender identities.

That starts with Designer April Forrer costuming them in form-fitting tights and short tunics resembling body armor: The Northumberland rebels in rust mosaic tunics and black tights, the Lancastrian court in purple mosaic and white tights, and Hal sporting a combination of purple, gold, and red plus the white tights. It's a sexy look, yes, but a contemporaneous Shakespearean aesthete dictates Forrer's choice, drawing on Renaissance-era fashion in depicting medieval knights. Beyond looking like women, these actresses in their performances don't waste an ounce of interpretive energy on being manly. Instead, they focus on playing their take of King Henry, Prince Hal, Hotspur, Falstaff, Glendower, and the other lords and gangsters (as well as on the three women's roles, Lady Percy, the Hostess, and Lady Mortimer).

That proves to be the yield in this particular all-female casting; or, at least, in casting these particular women. Along with its sequels (Part Two and Henry V) plus Coriolanus, Henry IV, Part One, could be termed the most macho of Shakespeare's plays, with its tavern scenes, its "Harry to Harry" battles, its highwaymen exploits, its father-to-son dynamics, its several scenes of men engaging in figurative cockfights, and its general denigration of women. Yet these actresses, by being women, ironically bring to the fore the play's machismo bearings, and thanks to their sure-footed Shakespearean performances and astute line readings under Delise's sparse but focused direction, Henry IV, Part One, blossoms in all its interconnected thematic and dramatic textures.

A devoted acolyte of the original-practice, text-centric school of Shakespearean staging, Delise has set a standard for all BSF productions to maintain extraordinary fealty to Shakespeare's texts. With Henry IV, Part One, that means keeping in passages most productions cut: the scene at the Rochester Inn where the wonderfully rich character of Gadshill (Sadie Lockhart) primes the travelers who will be robbed in the next scene by Falstaff and his cronies at Gads Hill; the moments at the Eastcheap tavern when Hal first talks of his best-of-buds' encounter with the tapsters, pranks the waiter Francis (Julia Capizzi), and then mocks Hotspur before moving on to foiling Falstaff's tall tale of Gads Hill; and the scene in which the Archbishop of York (Kat McKerrow) sends letters of urgent importance to the rebel army. You can cut these and still maintain the play's narrative, but you don't realize how much richer the play is until you see these scenes acted out in the perspective of the overall play. The Rochester scene implicates Hal as a thief by portraying a well-established criminal organization headed by his best friend Poins as well as Falstaff. The set of Eastcheap scenes further distances Hal from Hotspur. As for the Archbishop's single-scene appearance, what might seem an obligatory historical insertion on Shakespeare's part—merely establishing the role of the Archbishop that will be developed further in Part Two—resonates immediately when you see, as you do in this production, the impatient Hotspur ignore the arrival of the Archbishop's letters as he rushes into the Battle of Shrewsbury.

To keep the play to just under three hours, including intermission, Delise trims lines within scenes, cuts that are hardly noticeable. However, maintaining all of the play's scenes and Shakespeare's order is wonderfully noticeable as we see Shakespeare's genius in plot structure, character development, and allegorical arcing play out the way it was meant to. While I've seen better-played productions of Henry IV, Part One, I've never enjoyed the play as much as I did watching this one.

Despite the title character of Henry IV and the character deemed one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, Falstaff (so popular even in his own time he earned his own spin-off play), the real key to Henry IV, Part One, is the relationship of the two Harrys, Prince Hal (Ann Turiano) and Harry "Hotspur" Percy (Caitlin Carbone). Getting their character arcs in full as we do here we see the way Shakespeare constructed their parallel evolutions, made all the more poignant in the performances of Turiano and Carbone.

I'm picky about my Hotspurs, and Carbone passes my exacting test. Her Hotspur lives up to his name, barely containing himself in agitation with the king before exploding into his popinjay speech. Carbone is hilarious as Hotspur reads the letter from the "cowardly hind" while letting us see the stupidity under Hotspur's heroic delusions in writing to that particular lord in the first place. This Hotspur is playful with his wife (Tegan Williams, with spirited spunk to match that of her husband, but much more common sense, too), and earns the audience's devotion with the way he stands up to Glendower (Jessica Behar) in the Welsh Council scene, a scene not only kept in but thankfully played for laughs. By this point, we fully admire Hotspur while laughing at his impatience. Yet, it's the scene after the Wales scene that Prince Hal begins his shift from scofflaw to heroic, marking the turning point in the intertwined triumph of Hal and the tragedy of Hotspur. Thereafter, the very things that had made Hotspur so endearing in the first half of the play become his undoing.

Meanwhile, Hal emerges from the clouds, though we can't be certain his own calculated posturing created those clouds. In his "I know you all" speech, Turiano's Hal seems less confident and more wishful, while throughout the shenanigans on Gads Hill and at the Boar's Head Tavern, her Hal is every bit a free-spirited clown. In the play-acting scene, when Falstaff implores Hal playing the king to "banish not [Falstaff] thy Harry's company," Turiano speaks the prince's reply of "I do, I will" with apologetic resignation. It's a touching moment.

We see the real Hal—and, simultaneously, the future Henry V—finally emerge in his interview with his father, and it ultimately is thanks to Hotspur. Valerie Dowdle plays Henry IV as a pompous, speechifying monarch, as if statuesque posing and clipped speeches equal command. Perhaps her reading of the part is spurred by Douglas in the battle of Shrewsbury, commenting that "thou bear'st thee like a king" not to mention Henry's own description to his son how in Richard II 's time "Thus did I keep my person fresh and new; my presence, like a robe pontifical, ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state, seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast and won by rareness such solemnity." Dowdle maintains this portrayal even in Henry's private moment with his son; but Turiano's Hal responds with an eye-rolling, rather-be-anywhere-but-here posture and there-goes-dad-again expression.

It is his father's suggestion that Hal would rather "fight against me under Percy's pay, to dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns, to show how much thou art degenerate" that snaps Hal out of his irreverence. We've already seen—because Delise kept those moments in—how much Hal despises Hotspur, and this accusation from his father stirs an outburst almost equivalent to Hotspur's popinjay speech. Thereafter, we begin gradually getting a more serious Hal, at first alternating with the good-timing jokester; but by the time Turiano's Hal reaches Shrewsbury he has determined to bear a solemn humility that sets himself apart from the excitable ego that is Hotspur. Yet, Dowdle's Henry never fully trusts Hal, even to the end.

I have always wanted to see a woman play Jack Falstaff; and though I have yet to see Falstaff played as Jacqueline Falstaff, I am satisfied in Kay-Megan Washington's performance that such casting would be a right thing to do. She fully captures Falstaff's dual personality, the con artist beneath the veneer of jolly old St. Nick. Though making her Shakespeare debut with this performance, she is every inch a Falstaff, whipping off Falstaff's witticisms nimbly and with incomparable timing. Yet, there is little sense of devotion between this Hal and Falstaff, and that seems derived from the script. Turiano's Hal treats Falstaff as just another lark, and she plays Hal's vicious insults toward Jack with an underpinning of cruel intent. Her Hal is clearly closer to Poins (Katharine Ariyan), and as he puts together his army Hal pointedly tells Peto (McKerrow) "Thy place will be honorable" while giving Falstaff a charge of foot as a practical joke: "I know his death will be a march of twelve-score," he says. Falstaff, meanwhile, reveals his true feelings about Hal with the way he disparages the prince out of his hearing.

Falstaff, with white puffy shirt, green pants, black coin purse hanging on her string belt, and a tapestry like cloak holds up a pewter mugAs dominating a character as Falstaff is, and as dominating as Washington's performance is, Falstaff doesn't intrude on the Hal-Hotspur thematic dynamic until the absolute wrong moment, when the two Harrys fight at Shrewsbury. Shakespeare's stage direction has Hal and Hotspur fighting when Falstaff comes on stage and starts cheering the prince on. The Earl of Douglas (Behar) then enters and "he fights with Falstaff, who falls down as if he were dead, and exit Douglas." The direction continues, "Hotspur is wounded and falls." Delise's blocking has all this happening simultaneously, and as we watch an extended Falstaff-Douglas fight (longer than I've ever seen before), the moment Douglas runs off we turn our attention to the already wounded Hotspur. Distracted by the Falstaff-Douglas goings-on, we are deprived of the satisfying conclusion of the Hal-Hotspur rivalry (on top of the fact that Turiano and Carbone are the best stage fighters in this production).

But if that is taking issue with an exact reading of the script, I grant that elsewhere the practice has a satisfying payoff. While Peto and Gadshill gamely back Falstaff in his tales about the Gads Hill robbery, Bardolph (Lynley Peoples) sulks the whole time, leading to his insistence that he "blushed to hear his monstrous devices." Hal responds to this claim with an insult, Bardolph stands up to the prince, and their further exchange is a terse one, ending with Hal threatening a hanging for Bardolph. Whether Hal is being truly royal here or a fellow thief, he shows his dangerous side.

Then there is Sir Richard Vernon, given proper prominence in this production and a most suitable portrayal by Ariyan. A world of conflicting conscience plays out in her expressions as her Vernon watches the rebel cause implode. He has joined the rebels because he agrees the king has turned tyrannical against the lords who had put Henry on the throne, but as Vernon sees Worcester's own despotism take hold, Hotspur's ego run amok, and the untrustworthy Douglas gain stature in the rebel camp, Ariyan's Vernon grows ill-at-ease. Vernon also provides reports on Hal's redemption, first describing how the prince did "Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury, and vaulted with such ease" onto his horse "as if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds, to turn and wind a fiery Pegasus and witch the world with noble horsemanship." Later, Vernon accurately reports Hal's dignified offer of single combat with Hotspur, who responds to Vernon's account with disdain. That Vernon's execution is almost an afterthought from King Henry after the battle is a slap to this character's character, but Ariyan's Vernon seems glad to be rid of the whole lot of them. Over the years at the point of his sentencing—in those productions that don't cut him out altogether—I've seen Vernon stoic, I've seen him scared, I've seen him bewildered. In this production, I see Ariyan maintaining Vernon's noble character.

This Henry IV, Part One, is very much a man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without the women who bring Shakespeare's rich depiction of that world to fruition. And that's no insult.

Eric Minton
August 13, 2015

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom