Fun Lèna Fact: I love Shakespeare.
Fun Theatre Fact: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened their 50th anniversary season with Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.
Fun General Fact (salute): It’s Fantastic!!
This week we shall explore my favorite history play written by the Bard himself.
Let’s begin with a brief history on our beloved Bill. He was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. We do not have the exact date of his birth but based on the date of his baptism it can most likely be placed on April 23, 1564. He grew up there in his home town, attending the local school where he would have been expected to speak and read different languages such as Latin. When he was 18 he married Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant with his child, on May 26. Five months later Susanna Shakespeare was born. By 1592 he had gone to London and achieved success as both an actor and a playwright. By the time he retired he had fathered two more children, Hamnet and Judith (Hamnet tragically died during a bought of plague at the age of 11), he had written almost 40 plays, of which we still have 37, and 154 sonnets. He had also had two royal patrons (Queen Elizabeth I and King James IV). He lived out the last few years of his life in Stratford-Upon-Avon and died on April 23, 1616 (his assumed birthday) at the age of 52. He is buried in the church at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Onto Henry IV, Part One. It is the second installment in a tetralogy (four part series) about the rise of the house of Lancaster in British royal history. The full tetralogy is Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. It was written 1597. The entire saga is based on actual historical events but Shakespeare took some liberties where dramatically suitable, like Hotspur and Prince Hal being the same age, historically they were not. Who are Hotspur and Prince Hal you ask? All in good time…
The play is set in England during 1402-1403 on the bloody battle fields where honor is won and lost in the deeds men do, the Boar’s Head Inn where honor is interchangeably mocked and used, and England’s royal court where honor demands respect or no. King Henry IV (played by Brent Harris) is at war with the Scots to the north. His son, Prince Henry, nicknamed Hal (Derek Wilson), is a bit of a disappointment to his father. Prince Hal spends his time in taverns drinking and wenching with his very good friend, Falstaff (John Ahlin), an old, fat, drunken nobleman. (Fun Fact: Queen Elizabeth I was such a big fan of this character, that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor to showcase another Falstaff character just for her majesty. Falstaff is considered one of the funniest characters in not only the entire Shakespearian cannon but also English literature.) He and the other ragtags convince Hal to partake in a robbery. Unbeknownst to Falstaff however, Hal and Poins (Jeffery M. Bender) plan to split off from the group and rob Falstaff after the deed. Hilarity ensues. Still the friendship and brotherhood between Hal and Falstaff is beautiful in the Shakespeare Theatre NJ production. Heartbreaking and sidesplitting all at once.
Contrary to Hal is Henry Percy (Jon Barker) nicknamed Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland (Glenn Beatty). He is brave, brilliant, and honorable but also impulsive and has a temper, hence his nickname. His father and he are secretly planning to lead a revolt against the king. King Henry IV summons Hal, urging him to change his behavior and act like a prince. Hal, who has always intended to step up when the time came, promises to do so. This scene between father and son is so moving, when I saw it at STNJ I was crying. You could see in Brent and Derek’s faces that they were each other’s heroes. I truly felt that the love between this king and his son went beyond duty or legacy. Shakespeare’s good like that, writing words with so much life, but Brent and Derek give the scene its heart.
I must also put in a strong word for the three women in this show. Mistress Quickly (Jesse Graham), Lady Percy (Izzie Steele), and Lady Mortimer. Shakespeare is good to his women characters. Even if they have one scene, it is important, uncut-able, and moving. Mistress Quickly is the hostess of the Boar’s Head Inn and the insults and comedy she and the other characters bounce off one another, particularly Falstaff, is priceless. Truly some of the best insults in the Shakespearean cannon. Lady Percy’s strength, heart, and passion for her husband is inspiring. She is the rock that holds her hot headed husband down to earth while still holding him up and supporting him with all her self. And Lady Mortimer, who speaks only Welch while her husband Lord Mortimer (Doug West) speaks only English, is so devoted and in love with her husband, they still understand each other. These three actresses and their work are three of the absolute shining moments of this beautiful production.
Meanwhile, Hotspur is given intelligence that his forces will be greatly outnumbered because his uncle cannot get to them on the battle field. But Hotspur says, “let them come” no matter what the opposing side’s numbers are. The play culminates in a climactic scene where Hal and Hotspur meet on the battle field “Harry to Harry” and though they are both well trained and skilled Hal proves the better swordsman and Hotspur falls. Hal does not gloat or show any feeling but respect and admiration for his fallen foe.
This is a ver very Very abridged telling of this amazing story and it is certainly one to look up and experience at your next opportunity. If you are in the NJ/NY area, come see Henry IV at Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Previews started May 30th, Opening Night was June 2nd (that’s when I went), and it runs until Sunday June 24th. If for no other reason, see it for the beards!
Logo photo by Justine Impressions http://www.justineimpressions.com/