Crowning Achievement

Dakin Matthews’ Shakespeare adaptation triumphs

Rites of Succession

Richard Easton plays Henry IV, Michael Hayden plays Prince Hal.

There are times, admittedly rare, when sitting in the theater one is so overcome by the theatricality of what is happening onstage that it’s possible to burst into tears from of the joy of witnessing something so amazing. It is an experience that is unique to the theater, at least for me, for it is all about magic that exists only in a specific moment of time in which people, scenery, talent, and vision coalesce in real time right in front of your eyes. And no matter how many times a play is performed, that moment will never be the same.

The current production of “Henry IV,” now at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is remarkable primarily because it is filled with such moments. It is about as near perfect a production of Shakespeare as one could imagine in our time, and is no less remarkable for the seamless cutting together of two long plays (“Henry IV,” Parts 1 & 2) to create one play. Though the production comes in at nearly four hours, I was on the edge of my seat for almost the entire time.

Dakin Matthews, who did the adaptation, is very likely a genius. He has been able to maintain the martial lyricism of the play, the most important subplots, the political machinations of the world, and the bittersweet comedy of Falstaff and his cronies without seeming to shortchange any element of the show.

At the same time, director Jack O’Brien has mounted a classic medieval production— abetted by the brilliant set construction by Ralph Funicello and the evocative lighting by Brian MacDevitt—that should please the heart of any Shakespeare purist. The obvious political commentary on our own times—Does an autocrat have the right to rule? When is war justified? What is our exit strategy in Iraq?—stays shadowed in the background, yet it is always there. This is not a production that is as polemical as, say, last summer’s “Henry V” in Central Park. Instead it is like an action movie that revels in the essential integrity of the piece. Interpretation is not discouraged, but it is not at the center of the piece.

Freed from the need to comment or make a point beyond what Shakespeare actually wrote, O’Brien and his company present a “ripping tale” about court intrigue replete with cutthroat politics and foreign war. This is the kind of Shakespeare you could take kids to, for in addition to the excitement of the story, Steve Rankin has created the most astonishing stage combat I have ever seen. He sets a new, almost cinematic, standard for what can be done and what is believable on stage.

Adding to this abundance of riches is what can only be considered a dream cast. Kevin Kline is the marquee name as Falstaff, and once again he proves himself to be an actor of such skill and precision that the droop of a shoulder or the use of a sword to bring his tankard of ale closer are just two of the myriad highlights of what is a finely detailed and historic interpretation of the character.

I have always believed that Falstaff for all his jollity was an inherently cynical character, a man who hides his craven self-interest under a dissembling outward demeanor. It’s a device that Dickens also used with such characters as Uriah Heep and Noah Skiimpole. Falstaff is often played as a well meaning, but inept Santa Claus. In giving a more complex portrayal, Mr. Kline makes Falstaff more comprehensible in the underworld he inhabits. Prince Hal’s ultimate renunciation of Falstaff here makes sense and foreshadows how as Henry V he will deal with politics and corruption.

As Prince Hal, Michael Hayden is excellent, growing into the role as Hal grows to the crown. He is particularly good in the first act when Hal shows he knows what he’s about by casting off his “rude behavior” in order to “falsify men’s hopes,” and defy his doubters. He is even better as Hal becomes a military force and political operative. But Mr. Hayden is most impressive in the poignant final argument with the king where Hal is caught between wanting the crown and knowing that it comes only at the his father’s death, and struggles to come together as son, man, and king.

Ethan Hawke gives a bold and daring portrayal of Hotspur. He has the courage to be the only actor who gives his lines a contemporary inflection, and it works remarkably well. It becomes clear that Hotspur is a man of irrepressible passions, and at the same time a soldier who has little use for the machinations of the court. Though Hal has no choice but to kill him, Hotspur’s death is an almost existential moment that virtually hangs in the air leaving one unsure whether it is met with triumph or grief—or both.

Other particularly good members of the cast include Audra McDonald as Lady Percy in a small but riveting performance, Dana Ivey as a bawdy Mistress Quickly and as a strong Lady Northumberland.

Do whatever you can to see the show before its January closing. Hal promises that as a reformed prince he will be “like bright metal on sullen ground.” This production, by its sheer brilliance, quite nearly eclipses anything else you might see right now.

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