If only all wild nights of carousing could end with such a gesture of love. Partway through “Henry IV, Part 1,” the ebbing of revelry at the Boar’s Head Tavern finds Prince Hal — the wild-oats-sowing royal heir — preparing to steal away from his dissipated buddy Sir John Falstaff. In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s slow-out-of-the-gate but ultimately absorbing production, Falstaff (Stacy Keach) has zonked out beneath a table, presumably exhausted by booze and the string of whoppers he has recently told. Hal (Matthew Amendt) has been teasing his crony mercilessly all evening, but now he crouches down and tenderly covers the sleeping Sir John with a tablecloth in lieu of a blanket.
It’s one of several moving moments in this production, which is directed by Michael Kahn and running in repertory with “Henry IV, Part 2.” And the resonance of the sequence is all the richer, because it’s only in this tavern scene — some way into the play — that this “Henry IV, Part 1” really warms up and begins to display a full sweep of canvas. The power of “Henry IV” as a whole is the way it explores the public and the private; terrifying political and moral calculations, and moments of frivolous levity; a turbulent national saga complete with epic battles; and a young lad’s coming-of-age tale, complete with family tension, irreverent banter and practical jokes. This tavern scene — which begins with a rousing drinking song, later sounds notes of anxiety as news about an accelerating civil war breaks into the merriment and ends with the tablecloth business — captures that richness of scope and feeling.
By contrast, the earliest scenes in the production feel a tad narrow — a vibe that is reinforced by Alexander Dodge’s towering, wooden-palisade set, etched with a map of England. Our first image is of a glum King Henry IV (Edward Gero) contemplating the map, brooding over his involvement in overthrowing the country’s previous monarch, Richard II. (An opening voiceover, borrowed from “Richard II,” drives this point home.) As the plot unfolds, the palisade begins to seem like a fortress wall, temporarily sheltering the king from the consequences of his actions: His erstwhile collaborators in overthrowing Richard — such as the Earl of Worcester (Steve Pickering) and Henry Percy, a.k.a. Hotspur (John Keabler) — have chafed under the new regime and are plotting rebellion.
Aptly symbolic though the palisade may be, it also contributes to a claustrophobic atmosphere — one that doesn’t dissolve with the early appearance of Keach’s somewhat muted Falstaff. A slightly rueful and fretful figure, this “huge hill of flesh” (as Hal impishly calls him) can be funny — as when he totters into view wearing a ridiculous mask for a robbery or when he plunks himself down on a camp stool in the middle of a major military maneuver after ordering Bardolph (a droll Brad Bellamy) to buy more liquor. But he’s only a mildly charismatic rogue — on the bright side, he doesn’t overshadow the play’s other personalities — and sometimes a resigned tone in his delivery dials down the character’s wit and vitality more than it seems optimal for “Part 1.”
For more magnetic rapscallion presences, you have to turn to the tale’s two young Henrys — whose idiosyncratic personalities simmer and smoke so energetically that, when that oppressive palisade breaks open, a few scenes into the play, you could see the more expansive atmosphere as letting needed oxygen in. Keabler’s Hotspur is wonderfully irascible: A talk with King Henry leaves him so exasperated that he kicks a chair repeatedly and hurts his hand pounding the floor. Later, when he’s talking to the mystically minded Welshman Owen Glendower (Ted van Griethuysen, in a crazy quilt of fur; Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes), Hotspur’s retorts are delectably curt.
Hotspur becomes an almost mythic rival to Prince Hal — persuasively and grippingly played by Amendt as a young man who has allowed himself to stay boyish too long. Throwing a pillow at his pal Poins (Jude Sandy), reveling in his repartee with Falstaff, growing hurt and defensive at a painful dinner with his father, this Hal is fiercely alive. When he contemplates a future reformation (“herein will I imitate the sun”), he seems to get carried away with his fantasy — like a kid imagining an action-hero’s adventure.
You might not believe this princeling could possibly pull off combat with the irrepressible Hotspur — but the fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet helps create a Hal-vs.-Hotspur encounter that is plausible and hugely affecting.
The fight directors also make the overall Battle of Shrewsbury aptly violent. The past haunts the present in “Henry IV” — and in the combat sequences, as elsewhere in this production, you’re aware of how, in this resentment-scarred kingdom, betrayals beget more betrayals and bloodshed more bloodshed. You can even read this sad truth into the Welsh song that Glendower’s daughter (Vanessa Sterling) sings in one of the production’s most haunting moments: Wild and melancholy, the song seems to acknowledge a deep hurt in the world that a victorious battle — or a spree in a tavern — can only temporarily salve.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn; lighting design, Stephen Strawbridge; composer/music director, Michael Roth; wig design, Paul Huntley; voice and text coach, Ellen O’Brien; assistant director, Gus Heagerty. With Patrick Vaill, Craig Wallace, Kevin McGuire, Kelley Curran, Chris Genebach, Joel David Santner, Derrick Lee Weeden, Aaron Gaines, Rhett Henckel, Kate Skinner, Matthew McGee and others. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. $20-115. Running in repertory with “Henry IV, Part 2” through June 8 (last performance of “Part 1” on June 7) at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.