Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part One's" is a powerful contemporary production. Director Michael Donald Edwards points out in the program notes that "Whether it was Rome, Athens, Egypt... or Venice, everything pretty much looked and sounded like Elizabethan England." While none of the dialogue is changed, this looks pretty much like contemporary U.S. and England. We open with the podium of the President of the United States, with the Presidential Seal replaced by the Seal of The House of Plantaganet. Henry appears flanked by Secret Service agents and his military attaches. He speaks of rebellion in the North, and we move to the Pentagon like the War Room, with a big map of England marked with significant strategic points.
This play is, in large part about two young Harry's; Harry Percy, called Hotspur, who helped Henry in his campaign against Richard II, and Harry, Prince of Wales, called Hal. Hotspur is everything a King could want in a son, while Hal is everything is everything a King would loathe. Henry publicly speculates that he wishes he would find out that they had been switched at birth. Hotspur is in the War Room with the King and his military advisors. He refuses to turn over his Scottish prisoners to the King until Henry repatriates Mortimer, Richard II's chosen successor, and Hotspur's brother-in-law. This sets the stage for the rebellion against Henry by English Lords loyal to Hotspur, Northumberland, his father, and Owen Glendower, Mortimer's host in exile and father-in-law, along with the Scottish Douglas.
Hal's appearance is a bit different. We hear loud rock music, Hal comes out on a motor scooter dressed in a Union Jack with sunglasses and shoulder length red hair. He wakens his buddy Falstaff, asleep on a park bench and gives him a six-pack, which Sir John proceeds to drink in it's entirety without even separating the cans from the plastic holder. John Pribyl's Falstaff is blustery, rude, and insolent. He's stuffed with a couple of pillows and dressed in this garish, predominantly yellow patchwork outfit with scraggly beard and long, ratty hair. When he and his cohorts rob the travellers he puts on a Nixon mask to the howls of the audience.
The East Cheap brothel becomes 42nd Street with peep shows and cocktail lounge. This is as seedy a scene as has ever graced the Ashland stage, and I'm certain is exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. Inspite of this debauchery, Hal is never far from the realization that he is to be King, and this life is temporary. We see this especially in his disgust following his and Falstaff's interrogation of him as first Sir John plays the King, then Hal is Henry and he knocks over the makeshift throne to the strains of loud, persistent rock music. We hear "London Calling" by the Clash, as he is called to war.
In stark contrast to this is the formal setting at Glendower's estate. We have sparkling, lighted small trees on the patio. The men in tuxes, the ladies in gowns, with a pianist. Hotspur's flaws are his temper and his utter disrespect of the arts and anything that can't be used to further his ambition. Barry Kraft's Glendower is the opposite. The clash between the two conspirators is remarkable, but the tension is defused and an uneasy truce is made.
Meanwhile, Hal's transformation to military leader is complete as he leads his forces into battle. This is not a war of hand-to-hand combat, but aerial bombings, gunfire, smoke, and crumbling buildings on the Elizabethan stage. This is modern warfare, and it starkly shows the destruction that we inflict with our 20th century weapons. This is where Hal reveals himself as a master of his experiences. Although nothing can transform Falstaff he has learned how to turn a rag-tag band like Peto, Bardolph, and Poins into a fighting army, a skill that will serve him well at Agincourt as Henry V. When he kills Hotspur, it is with great sorrow at the realization that he has felled a valiant man, and he then grants Douglas mercy.
"Henry IV Part One" is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, arguably his best. This Ashland production is complex, satisfying, and relevant to our own time. If you are familiar with this play, this is one of a kind and a very compelling experience. If you are not familiar, the staging makes it very easy to follow, language notwithstanding, because the symbols are all around us.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival 98
Henry IV Pt.1
| Comedy of Errors
| Measure for Measure
| Touch of the Poet
| Sailing to Byzantium
Midsummer Night's Dream | School for Scandal | Uncle Vanya | OSF Commentary