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An interview with a Falstaff

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Had you ever played Falstaff before?

I had not. I had understudied the role before but never played it.

Which mounted first?

Merry Wives mounted first.

When you did that one, did you know you were going to be doing all three?

I knew that I was going to be doing Part 1, and I suspected that I would be doing Part 2, as well. That was a different season, so I couldn't be absolutely certain that I would be offered a contract for that season, but I was relatively certain that they had me in mind for both plays.

Did you go into Merry Wives, then, looking at the other plays?

I was already looking at Part 1. I taught Part 1. I've never taught Part 2 in the classroom. So I was familiar with Part 1, very familiar with it. And then I'm in something of a clique of fellows here in the company who are great fans of Falstaff. Rick Blunt and Ben Curns are both great Falstaff enthusiasts, and Ben has played Falstaff a number of times. I saw him play Falstaff in Part 1 in my first season here. He was in the touring company and I thought he had the real flavor of Falstaff. For a young man to have that much of a flavor of Falstaff was sort of shocking to me at the time. I was very impressed at how much of the flavor of the older knight a man in his 20s could have.

So how old were you when you played it?

I am now 49. I was 47 when I played Falstaff in Merry Wives and Part 1, and 48 when I played it in Part 2.

Did you have any performances that informed you, because there's not a lot of filmed Falstaffs out there?

Well there's Chimes at Midnight, which resonates for anyone because it's just fabulous, and I think [Orson] Welles captures so much in that film of how I see Falstaff on the page. Were there other Falstaffs that informed me? I don't think that there were. Even Welles, I sort of had him in the back of my head; I was aware of it, but I didn't think about Welles' interpretation when thinking about mine. I like to go back to the text. Not that I'm above stealing from other performances, because I certainly am not; if I think people have done good things and it makes sense then I do it. For instance, in playing Lear I was much more conscious of previous Lears and I had seen Lear on stage many more times than I'd seen Part 1.

The fact for me is that my father owned an Irish bar in Queens, and that informed me every bit as much with Falstaff.

Really? In what way?

The people who inhabit the Cheapside tavern are like the guys who came into my dad's bar. There's a blue-collar sensibility. There's a love of life but a dangerous edge of dissipation that resides in the neighborhood bar. So, I think the characters who came into my dad's bar, the guys who came in there, have pieces of Falstaff for me. Especially the Irishmen, because they were very quick-witted. My dad was very quick-witted. He never suffered from what I think the French call l'esprit de l'escalier, where you're going up the stairs later on wishing you had said something. My father never suffered from that. He always said the thing in the moment; it was the clever thing to say, and he never regretted later having not said something. He may regret having said something, but not having not said something. My father was a little on the rotund side, too, later in life. So there was something about my father's burliness and life that I felt very strongly in Falstaff, moreso than I think other stage Falstaffs.

I find it interesting that you guys put Merry Wives up first because, though it was written after Henry IV, Part 1, I sometimes see it as sort of a prequel to the Henry plays. Do you see Falstaff as younger in Merry Wives than in Henry IV?

It wasn't an age factor so much as a genre factor. It's like he's in a different world more than that he's a different age. So, I didn't see any kind of sharp disparity between Henry IV, Part 1, and Merry Wives as far as Falstaff's age goes. Seems to me he could be the same age; I have no problem with that. If I had been doing Part 2 with Merry Wives, I probably would have seen him as being older in Part 2. Even though the action of Part 2 comes pretty much on the heels of Part 1, there's a profound feeling in the play that his age is much more of a factor. Even though in Part 1 he says things like, “Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle? Why my skin hangs about me like an old lady's loose gown,” and that kind of stuff, that's more pose with Bardolph. I don't see that as being as much about age or anything like that, that he's dwindling away. But age is his great hang-up he comes back to over and over again in Part 2. So if I had been doing Part 2 and Merry Wives in concert with one another, I might have been more aware of age, but it never really entered my mind much as a disparity for Merry Wives and Part 1.

For me, it was much more a question of genre. I started out thinking that the Falstaff of Merry Wives was cartoonish, that it was a cartoon of the other man. And part of it is that I have such great love for Part 1 as a play and particularly for the relationship between Hal and Falstaff. There's something really beautiful about that relationship to me, and that's why what happens in Part 2 is so horrendous and horrifying, because the relationship in Part 1 is sort of lovely. There's nothing like that in Merry Wives. I felt that the thing that makes Falstaff really Falstaff for me is his capacity for love and his capacity for connection in spite of the fact that he's a parasite. But he's also large of soul, he's not just a parasite. He's the very image of life, indeed, as he says of himself. I feel there's a life about him and a sense of the nonsense of life, the BS of life and how people kowtow to that and are suckered in—the whole honor speech. I think he's aware, too, of the other side of life, of the id, the appetite, the eating and jesting life, and taking it in. He's aware of the debauchery involved in that, too, but he's also aware that something at the center of that is really great, really marvelous. But I softened a great deal toward the Falstaff in Merry Wives. The play showed me something of the fact that the same Falstaff is present, moreso than I thought initially.

In what way?

Well, in his desire to be loved [laughs]. In his desire for some kind of reassurance that he is not old; that's there, too. But otherwise he's plunked down into a silly little plot, really, and he's not the center of the play in a lot of ways. I think Ford is—they share the center of the play, which is great fun to do with John Harrell because he's so gifted as a comedian. We rarely in the past have gotten to have scenes together, we're usually in different parts of the play. We had a couple of scenes there together as Master Ford and Falstaff,  and they were great fun to do.

I watched a recent episode of House that really put me in mind of the difference between these things. You have the House of the normal world of the show, and he's acerbic and intelligent and obnoxious and fantastic and gifted and tender at times. He's this full, remarkable character and Hugh Laurie certainly does the job of making him that character, and I feel like that's the actor's obligation to find all those things. And if you're Falstaff of Henry IV, Part 1, all that's there. There's richness and depth and different colors in the pallet. They did a recent episode on House where his love interest, Dr. Cuddy, may be terminally ill and he's having all these dreams and there are several dream sequences in which he dreams a zombie movie and they dream a musical, they dream the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is terrific if you love that movie as I do, but they also dream a sitcom, like a Two and A Half Men–type of sitcom where she envisions her daughter being raised by House and Wilson. And it's a different genre, it's a different world, and you get to see Hugh Laurie as House in that genre. There are different tropes for that structure, and he's still House but here he is a different character, and you see if that were a sitcom with House, this is how it would look. So I feel like Merry Wives is like that compared to Henry IV, Part 1.

I feel somebody said to Shakespeare, whether it was Elizabeth or not, “I want to see the fat knight in love.” And Shakespeare said, “Yeah, you know, let's take Fat Jack and plunk him down in this genre over here.” He cannot be the same person in that world. It's not possible for him to be the same person in that world. His concerns are not the same, the world's not the same. It's suburbia he put him in. It's a smaller world with different concerns. He's not on the great big canvas of who's going to rule England, who's going to be in charge and whether or not that person is going to be worthy of doing that. Even when he's in Cheapside, that concern is still there. The tour de force of that tavern scene where Falstaff performs both Hal and Henry IV, and then you get the scene where Henry IV confronts Hal, and Falstaff has been right about a lot of it, even to the point where the father's going to cry over this, and Henry IV comes to tears. Who would have seen this guy coming to tears ever? He's such a politician, he's such a performer. He even talks about his performance all the time because he's always on. He's such a bombast. I played that role before, so I sort of know. But it's remarkable to have that scene because it has all this rich performance in it, but it's aware of all the vital concerns of the situation. There are no vital concerns in Merry Wives. There's just trying to answer the urges of masculinity and retaining that in the face of encroaching age. I'm dressing up as a woman, and all that stuff, and getting stuck in those situations. Certainly, with Gads Hill and otherwise, Falstaff is made an ass a number of times in the other plays, but not in that way. There's something very low and ridiculous about that, but it suits the genre that it's in. It suits that kind of comedy but would be profoundly out of place in the Henry plays, it seems to me. But they're more male, too, male worlds and the concerns are more male relationships, not male-female relationships, so that's a big difference, too.

But you still feel that it is Falstaff…
I do feel that it's Falstaff.
…and some of the Falstaff from Henry IV then informed what you were doing in Merry Wives?

I would never suggest for a second that Shakespeare hadn't written both those plays. And if somebody were to tell me that there was new evidence that Merry Wives was written before Henry IV, Part 1, I'd say I can't see how that's possible. Because it feels to me like he took a character that he already had and plunked him down in another form and said, “He can live here for a little space and he can be this,” but linguistically in that play, in the text, in how he says what he says, in his interactions, in his id-driven self-concern, he seems like the same guy to me. He seems the same guy to me.

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