"Nothing pleaseth but rare accidents," Shakespeare's rapscallion hero Prince Hal remarks in "Henry IV, Part 1," musing aloud about his princely image in what seems a 16th-century vision of political spin control. The pleasing "rare" event Hal has in mind is his plan to mend his loose-living ways -- to shed the company of his boozing companions and become a model king-in-waiting -- but his words seem to sum up a curious phenomenon in America's 2003-04 theater season: an upswing in productions of "Henry IV."
It's a rare accident indeed that, as the Shakespeare Theatre prepares for its first-ever staging of "Henry IV's" two parts (Part 1 starts performances Jan. 20, and Part 2 on March 16; the two plays run in repertory in May), it joins a cluster of notable productions this season. Among them is a widely publicized, star-studded version at New York's Lincoln Center Theater, with Kevin Kline as Hal's fat, witty sidekick, Sir John Falstaff, and Ethan Hawke as the impetuous rebel Hotspur ("Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety"). In the past few months, New York has also recently seen a controversial -- some would say disastrous -- "Henry IV, Part 1" created by Richard Maxwell, a young director whose brazen taste for droning, flat-as-cardboard dramas has made him the Johnny Rotten of the experimental theater scene.
"Henry" to the fore: In Atlanta, Brik Berkes and Maurice Ralston played Hal and Henry IV to sellout crowds at the the New American Shakespeare Tavern, left; at the Lincoln Center, Richard Easton and Michael Hayden carry the scepter.
(Paul Kolnik -- Lincoln Center Theater)
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On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company is planning a cowboy-style production of Part 1 -- historically the more popular and more frequently mounted of the two "Henry IVs," which together depict the rebellion-fraught reign of England's king Henry Bolingbroke, father to Prince Hal.
Meanwhile, the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta just wrapped up the tetralogy of history plays that starts with "Richard II," includes "Henry IV" and ends with "Henry V" (which chronicles Hal's exploits after he becomes king). The project left Tavern Artistic Director Jeffrey Watkins slightly stunned by the public's appetite for the material. "Tomorrow we're going to sell out a production of 'Henry IV, Part 2,' " he marveled in an interview as the run drew to a close. "Hello! What are you going to do with that?"
The geographical spread and eclecticism of the productions seem apt for a pair of plays marked by a certain encyclopedic quality: The two "Henry IV" plays paint a picture of both the public and the domestic, of nation-altering battles and dissolute nights in taverns, of father-son tensions, practical jokes (Hal's on Falstaff), treachery, lechery, insomnia -- even the pontifications of a Welsh sorcerer. Remarkably or not, this year's rival "Henry IV" productions were all scheduled independently. For Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who presented a combined version of Parts 1 and 2 a decade ago, it was simply "time to do the Henrys again," especially, he says, since the theater has in recent years built up an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate the Bard's history plays.
On the other hand, Lincoln Center Artistic Director Andre Bishop was won over by one particular take on "Henry IV": Dakin Matthews's script, which conflates Parts 1 and 2, and which director Jack O'Brien (Broadway's "Hairspray," etc.) staged in 1995 at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. And the Shakespeare Tavern's Watkins says he resolved to take on the history cycle so that he and his regular actors could "do something we'd all be proud of for the rest of our lives."
Not everyone thinks there's anything remarkable in this confluence. "It's a statistical fact that plays crop up at the same time, for whatever reason," scoffs Bill Alexander, the British director who is supervising Parts 1 and 2 for the Shakespeare Theatre. When it comes to the Bard, Alexander says, outbreaks of certain plays happen "because everyone wants to do Shakespeare, and everyone wants to do one that hasn't been done for a while, and everyone comes to the same conclusion."
But O'Brien sees more significance. "There is something about shared intelligence," he says cautiously. "These plays speak to us, and we all begin to wonder about something at the same time. I think it must just be time for this." He offers a zoological metaphor: "I was told that, if chimpanzees in South America learn a new trick, chimpanzees in Africa learn the same trick," he says. "They're not taught -- they just do it."
Given "Henry IV's" preoccupation with issues of political and military legitimacy -- and its focus on a young ne'er-do-well who, mending his ways, inherits a crown from his father, who advises him to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" as a way of distracting internal opponents -- some journalists covering the New York shows have detected parallels to recent newspaper headlines. And at least one production is deliberately playing up the George W. Bush/Prince Hal angle. "There was our strike against Iraq, and I thought about American violence and aggression that has to do with a sense of our entitlement, and the 'Henry IV' project made sense for me," says Lisa Wolpe, artistic director of the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company. "I was intrigued by George W. Bush's lack of dutiful presence in his younger years, his record as a playboy and drinking man, and then his presentation of himself as a conservative military leader in his later years, and following his father's unfinished business at tremendous cost to both countries, including loss of life." The cowboy imagery, she notes, suits the motif of "high-status folks claiming power and rights over others."
But the other artists deny taking a deliberately political tack. "The question I always get is: 'Are you trying to make a statement about George W. Bush and aspects of the administration that you want to comment on?' " says Maxwell, whose deadpan "Henry IV" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October sent spectators fleeing for the exits. "Unfortunately, it's not the case. If people glean that from the production, that's great, but it's not my intention."
Having previously directed only his own scripts, which boast deliberately humdrum narratives and hyper-real, tedious-sounding diction, Maxwell undertook Shakespeare for personal rather than political reasons: "I guess selfishly, I looked at it as a way to get out of my patterns and habits," he says. As for his selection of "Henry IV" in particular, he explains that he had studied the play in college and "in Hal, Falstaff and Hotspur I saw a bit of myself, and I saw my dad in the king, I think."
If Maxwell was psychologically prepared for his "Henry IV," audiences weren't. With its intentionally amateurish scenery and its expressionless line readings by actors who, in many instances, had never attempted Shakespeare before -- and, in a couple of cases, had never acted before -- this production caused a small scandal in the theater world. One outraged audience member briefly threatened BAM with a class action suit, and London's Barbican Center canceled plans to host the production.
The director says the hostility surprised him. "I'm an optimist," he notes. "I was hoping people would be invigorated by the production, and unfortunately there were some who were offended." He's kept his sense of humor, though, joking that he considered announcing that his next project would be "Henry IV, Part 2." In fact, he plans to return to self-written scripts, but foresees tackling more Shakespeare down the line. "I'm thinking about 'Hamlet,' " he says.
Like Maxwell, O'Brien makes a point of saying he had no political ax to grind. "I didn't pitch it in terms of relevance to the political scene," he says. "That's the kind of thing which I as director am immensely leery of." He points out that "Henry IV" is "about fathers and sons -- but Shakespeare's never just about one thing. It's about 11 things, and they're layered like Troy. You keep digging." But O'Brien's collaborator Matthews, who in addition to adapting the script plays the Welsh sorcerer Owen Glendower, points out that some topical resonance is inevitable. " 'Henry IV' is about governance," he says. "If one's right to govern is in any question whatsoever; if rivalries and clashes develop; if a person from a governing family is growing up to become a ruler and deciding how to train himself for that," he adds, then " 'Henry IV' is going to seem rather on the mark."
Kahn agrees that Americans encountering Prince Hal's tale these days will think, "How interesting to have a play about a young man who's sown his wild oats in youth and then takes over from his father." But the artistic director, like many of the artists involved in the current productions, would prefer to emphasize the expansiveness of "Henry IV's" themes. The Shakespeare Theatre last mounted "Henry IV" in 1994, using a script by Kahn that merged the two parts. While that production was "thrilling," Kahn says, "I was really aware at the time of the parts -- many of them in Part 2 -- that we weren't able to do. The piece has this incredible movement: one society ending, and the beginning of another society, and the growth of Prince Hal. It's elegiac and poetic, and a lot of that had to get cut."
The forthcoming productions of Part 1 and 2 will let Washingtonians contemplate "the entire breadth of Shakespeare's vision," says Kahn. The two "Henry IVs," he proclaims, are "extraordinary in presenting the whole world onstage. The artistic, the military, the tavern, the underworld, the ordinary people -- they're all in those plays. They are his greatest achievement for me."