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Shakespeare & Co's 'Henry IV' a fast-paced take on Shakespeare's two parts

Malcolm Ingram as Falstaff in a scene from "Henry IV Parts I and II"
Malcolm Ingram as Falstaff in a scene from "Henry IV Parts I and II"
Kevin Sprague

'Henry IV Parts I and II" at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.

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By the intermission of the opening night of Shakespeare & Company’s new production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” the purists in the audience could be overheard whispering, “this isn’t Shakespeare.” Of course this wasn’t Shakespeare: there were women playing women’s parts, the old English almost Irish sounding accent of Shakespeare’s time was nowhere to be heard and there wasn’t a grounding in sight.

Henry Clarke and Jonathan Epstein in "Henry IV, Parts I and II"
Kevin Sprague

What they really meant, however, was that director and star Jonathan Epstein’s adaptation cut the six hours of the original to somewhat less than three, leaving out certain speeches or scenes that perhaps these Shakespearean fans had a special fondness for. Any number of characters were eliminated (Shakespeare’s Henry IV had four sons; for his purposes Epstein only uses two, for example), certain scenes were cut to the bone, and situations and dialogue that could be considered repetitious were jettisoned. What the audience saw then was Epstein’s Shakespeare, but it turned out to be a thrilling and exhilarating version, gripping and invigorating at the same time.

There were moments when the plot sped by like Shakespeare on Ritalin, but for the most part the audience was treated to a broad overview of the structure and plot of both parts that managed to capture the essential essence of the humor, tragedy, machinations, and underlying tensions at the heart of these iconic history plays. While many elements of the play did receive short shrift, the audience did get to see the entire Henry IV story. I’m sure many people have seen at least one or more productions of “Henry IV, Part I,” but I wonder how many have had the chance to spend much time with “Henry IV, Part II.” It is rarely performed, even in repertory with Part I, so this was an excellent opportunity for audiences to discover what happens to the tormented King as well as how his son, the initially wayward and boisterous Prince Hal, comes to take on the responsibilities of the Crown.

Fortunately, Epstein’s adaptation retains most of the good parts of the two works, giving ample time to the four most interesting characters in them, the aging King Henry IV himself, his wayward son, Prince Hal, the tempestuous challenger, Sir Harry “Hotspur” Percy, and the charismatic ne’er do well braggart, Sir John Falstaff. By focusing on these four, the two parts of Henry IV here become a more personal, less political story. Yes, we get the background of how King Henry himself essentially stole the crown from his immediate predecessor, the unlucky Richard II, but such information is provided so that we can see the toll of his guilt. And we understand Henry’s outrage at the Percy’s for their refusal to forward their prisoners from the war to him, each fearing that the soldiers will be employed against the other. But the crux of Epstein’s vision rests with the personal relationships, between two sets of fathers and sons, between Hal and Falstaff, and to a lesser extent between Hotspur and his wife.

As if to further his vision, Epstein provides Henry with a Queen to round out his family, but slyly provides the King with a royal mistress, as if to emphasize his human limitations. For a key scene in which the King confronts his profligate son, Epstein changes the locale to the Boar’s Head Tavern itself, to demonstrate Henry’s willingness to confront his offspring on the son’s turf. To help the audience track Prince Hal’s growth into a shrewd leader, Epstein has Hal, rather than his brother John negotiate the treaty with the King’s enemies, who in Epstein’s shorthand are depicted as Mortimer and Glyndwr rather than the Hastings and Mowbray of the actual play, in order to bring some resolution to those characters who have been onstage a good portion of the evening. In this way, Hal can be viewed as the brains behind the twist that is inflicted upon these enemies, supporting the Prince’s contention to his family that his time with Falstaff and friends is merely a ruse to surprise those who may doubt his abilities as a future King and warrior.

Epstein also jumps ahead at the end of his version to mark the death of Falstaff who, as Shakespearean’s know, doesn’t meet his maker until the end of “Henry V,” but it does allow the director in Epstein to stage a neat contrast/comparison between Henry IV and Falstaff in a memorable stage image. The few anachronistic images that Epstein throws in add a touch of lightness to an ultimately humorless tale, such as the use of mobile phones and laptops to communicate and plan strategy. There’s an ongoing clever joke about how the customers at Mistress Quickly’s are required to place their phones into a basket before entering the festivities. Another significant change is the role of Ned Poins, who instead of being a mere hanger-on by Prince Hal’s side becomes a private spy for the King, which allows Epstein to combine all of the reports about Hal from various members of the court into the part of single character.

The direction also provides some wry staging to some of the play’s more familiar set pieces, notably the ambush of Falstaff as Prince Hal and Poins take the spoils from a robbery just completed by Falstaff’s crew in order to see how extensive their fat friend’s exaggerations will be. Later, as Falstaff braggadocio takes center stage, Epstein has the barkeep’s apprentice and a barmaid constantly rearranging tankards and goblets to accommodate Sir John’s increasingly outlandish claims. The fight scenes are extremely well-staged and surprisingly extensive, especially the climactic fight between Hal and Hotspur. Epstein also creatively dispenses with the recruitment scene in Part II by having Falstaff and Justice Shallow use audience members to stand in for weary band of soldiers who ultimately end up as part of Falstaff’s platoon.

The actors, starting with Epstein himself in the title role, are all marvels. Epstein provides a quiet regality to Henry IV, that reveals a great depth of pain over his role in the humiliation and death of Richard II as well as a grand disappointment in his son, who he negatively compares to the bold and daring Hotspur. By the middle of the second act, Epstein lets us see just how much this King has aged, who nonetheless intends to stick around to be sure that his Kingdom will left in good hands.

A ginger-haired Henry Clarke presents a lithe, relaxed and ostensibly carefree Prince Hal, exhibiting no ambition and early on, little trace of regal bearing, although that subtly changes as the play progresses. The actor employs a bemused grin to highlight Hal’s attitude to his royal responsibilities, which Clarke can quickly turn into an earnest seriousness when he is needed to serve at this father’s side. His ultimate emergence as a poised, serious Henry V is one of more thrilling and surprising moments of the play, especially in his cruelly tragic renunciation of Falstaff and crew.

Timothy Adam Venable is an outstanding Hotspur, spewing loud and angry when necessary and curving his thin, lanky body into interesting contortions as he ponders his role as the ailing Northumberland’s son and how he should honor his father in his disagreements with the King both father and son helped to put on the throne. During the second act, which encompassed the events of “Henry IV Part II,” Venable contributed yet another memorable performance as the Ancient Pistol, another swaggering member of Falstaff’s entourage, ravaged perhaps more than any other character to the temptations of alcohol and irresponsible living.

And Malcolm Ingram’s interpretation of Falstaff illuminated the character’s charms and flaws. Ingram’s Falstaff could be endearing, true, even as his exaggerations and high personal opinion revealed a man who could be seriously deluded about himself, but at the same time conveyed a definite sense of menace, as if he were in part inspired by the devil himself, interested in a relationship with the heir apparent for some definitely nefarious purposes. The end result was a complex portrayal that left audience members both amused and exasperated.

Other standouts included the always reliable Johnny Lee Davenport who filled the role of Poins with intelligence and dignity, even when playing nasty tricks on the unaware Falstaff, and who, in spite of being a spy, was determinedly loyal in looking out for the young Prince’s best interests. He later plays the wild Welsh tribal leader Owain Glyndwr as a mass of unrelenting rage and keen resentment. Kevin Coleman did exquisite double duty as the doddering Justice Shallow and the angry, grief stricken Northumberland, while Ariel Bock slid convincingly among her roles as the bawdy Mistress Quickly, the stern Justice Silence and the long-suffering Queen Joanna. Kelly Kilgore was an appropriately tempestuous Doll Tearsheet and an earnestly pleading Lady Percy, while Michael Toomey ably doubled as the Bardolph of Falstaff’s merry men and Henry’s loyal but politically astute Lord Westmoreland. Benjamin Epstein proved he could play regal, as Hal’s dutiful younger brother Prince John, as well as rough, as the floor-wiping, bedpan emptying, and frequently beleaguered young barkeep.

Travis George has used the space in the Tina Packer Playhouse to create a thrust stage halved by a sunken passage that extends almost to the back wall where the King’s throne is able to be wheeled to the divide’s edge in front of a structure resembling one of those cage matches one sees on television, a reminder of the intimacy of the some of the battles we will encounter throughout both parts of the production. Arthur Oliver’s costumes consist of period-appropriate doublets, chain mail, white robes and wimples for the royal women and a wide selection of well-worn outfits for the lower classes. He dresses Epstein in a fine white and silver suit as befits a King, while finally depicting him in looser, plainer robes as his health and mental stage progresses downhill. Alexander Svronsky who plays much put-on servants and a common musician, has designed the overall sound for the production, whether ominous or merry, as well as the original music. Matthew Adelson’s lighting hauntingly focuses attention on various locations around or above the stage, particularly as characters face major decisions or come to stunning realizations about their situations.

For all the changes that Epstein has incorporated into his adaptation, this “Henry IV” plays an exciting, swiftly-paced piece of theatre that fully respects the nature of Shakespeare’s piece. I do believe that someone could intelligently discuss “Henry IV Parts I and II” after seeing this version, which in its own way does manage to highlight the great strengths of plot and characterization in Part I, while broadly hinting at the inadequacies inherent in Part II. But without Part II, please realize, we’d never be able to fully appreciate the greatness and magnitude of “Henry V” as it brings the story of Prince Hal Monmouth to its stirring and remarkable conclusion.

“Henry IV, Parts I and II” plays through August 31. For tickets and information, contact the Box Office at 413.637.3353 or visit their website at www.shakespeare.org.