Introducing “Henry IV, Part One”
On the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing “Henry IV, Part One” performed. It was a treat for several reasons. Unlike some of the other history plays – Richard III comes to mind – Henry IV appears to be rarer in performance. In fact, yesterday was my first encounter with the play. My comments are not comparative to other performances.
The play’s relative obscurity in performance is particularly striking given some of my recent reading. I’m currently reading “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd. In the book, Ackryod explains how “Henry IV” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his lifetime. The play’s popularity then and now is largely due to Sir John Falstaff, a legendary comic character. Even Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Falstaff.
It was indeed the presence of Falstaff that rendered these plays so popular; the first part Henry IV was reprinted more frequently than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The first quarto edition was read so often and so widely that it survives only in fragments; there were three reprintings in the first year of publication.” (pg 300) – BLOCKQUOTE
I find it fascinating to learn about the history of the play. Once upon a time, I imagined that all of Shakespeare’s plays were equally popular. In my experience, only a fraction of his plays are professionally performed each year. That fact makes it more difficult to see all of his plays in performance.
Reflections on The Play
Unlike Julius Caesar or Richard III, the title character of Henry IV Part One is almost invisible. In Shakespeare’s time and now, the star character is the Sir John Falstaff. In large part, Falstaff depends on his friendship with Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, for funds and other support. One wonders how the two first met – their origin story is omitted from the play. In terms of characters, I found Prince Hal and Falstaff most engaging (it helps that Falstaff gets the best lines of the play).
As with Shakespeare’s other history plays, I found Henry IV Part One’s exploration of authority intriguing. Simply possessing the Crown is not enough to sustain Henry’s authority and legitimacy. The play is an interesting object lesson – power is never final. If you ignore the friends and allies that brought you to power in the first play as Henry is alleged to have done, then you risk losing everything. It’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a time when monarchs could do as they wished – Shakespeare helps us see that time more deeply (e.g. constant rebellions and shifting alliances were the order of the day).
Watching Shakespeare In A Movie Theatre
Unlike a traditional performance, I saw “Henry IV Part One” as a broadcast at a local Cineplex movie theatre. The play was performed and recorded earlier this year by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. For the most part, I am quite happy with the production. It’s interesting to contrast a broadcast experience to a live production.
The broadcast format added several excellent qualities to the theatre experience. I enjoyed the pre-play interviews for their insight on casting decisions. During the intermission (or “interval” as the British call it), there were interviews and a segment on fight choreography. The fight director discussed how the climatic sword flight between Hotspur and Prince Hal was put together.
There are some downsides to seeing a broadcast production. Camera angles are a mixed blessing in my view. The close ups can work well to see the actor’s expressions – a luxury that is not always possible when one attends in person. On the other hand, the camera limits my ability to choose my area of focus. All in all, I found the movie theatre experience of Shakespeare enjoyable and plan to continue to attending performances.
Note to Cineplex: Please set up an email list to make it easy to find out about upcoming performances of Shakespeare. That would a great process improvement!
I’m looking forward to seeing “Henry IV Part Two” in August. I’m curious to see how Shakespeare handles the Part One versus Part Two dynamic. I wonder if Siobhan Richardson – the fight director – will be there at the next performance of Part Two.
Next On the Blog: I’m going to see “As You Like It” next. Expect a review to be published sometime in early August.