by Margaret Croyden

"Henry IV" He Who Wears The Crown

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Henry IV"
By William Shakespeare
Lincoln Center At The Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
Reviewed December 15,2003

It is always a grand event when an American company does Shakespeare. And it is always a grand event when it is produced by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, the Heads of the Lincoln Center theater, which was originally founded as a non-profit theater, and often acts as a reminder of what Broadway would not and could not do. So, not surprisingly the theatrical community has acclaimed this Shakespearean production--its actors and director--as a Lincoln Center victory. It has often been said that Americans cannot do the Shakespearian verse, and many critics reported with joy that this criticism can now be laid to rest: an all-American company has produced the finest Shakespearean production, they say, with an American cast directed by Jack O'Brian, an American. (O'Brian incidentally also won a Tony for his direction of "Hairspray" proving that he can succeed in all kinds of genres.) But is all this critical acclaim justified? Is this one of the greatest Shakespeare we have seen? Is this the greatest Falstaff (Kevin Kline) that ever hit the American stage?

Let me say at once that this is a respectable production that moves quickly, has plenty of energy, and swiftly tells the story, which is seamless, despite its many cuts, though it is long and tiresome toward the end. For Broadway, this is an able cast but not an outstanding one, although most critics and public alike adored Kevin Kline as Falstaff, who does a workman-like job but is not brilliant. The staging is not spectacular either--nothing innovative here--the actors move gracefully along the gloomy set (which reminded me of Peter Hall's 1960's "War of the Roses"). Smoke, flags, swords, and red flashes of fire, make up the battle scenes, common enough elements of fight scenes I had seen elsewhere more than once. I also thought that the director wanted to stick to the narrative rather than produce any startling or original concept. Which is a sorry decision; it robs us of the complications, ambiguities, and contradictions inherent in the text.

One of the problems is that while many of the actors seem efficient they are actually weak. Richard Easton as Henry IV is just ordinary. He misses the painful guilt and everlasting memory of his murder of Richard II and his usurping of the crown. His victory is hollow and he knows it. But rather than giving up his power, he organizes a fierce battle against those who oppose him. Mr. Easton has not found a way to incorporate the torturous guilt that ruins Henry's life and his reign. Prince Hal, the hero of the play (Michael Hayden) is unbelievable as the young prince destined to acquire the crown after his rowdy days in the tavern with Falstaff. The actor is simply unkingly, uncharming, and unaware of his royal status. Though he is slumming with Falstaff, and behaving as an ordinary mortal and a spoiled brat, he is, underneath it all, a royal. Mr. Hayden does not have the physical body or the presence to convince us that despite all his foolery, he is a prince, and when the time comes, he will be true to his royal birth. Because Hayden is inadequate, his scenes with Falstaff lack the excitement and fun of tavern life. Nor do the two of them express the irony of their situation, the complications of their personalities, and the nasty outcome that will end their relationship. As a result, Kevin Kline as Falstaff suffers in the role. True, Kline is the most articulate speaker in the play; his enunciation is perfect; his makeup is what one expects; his disguise is believable, and he is not objectionable. But he misses Shakespeare's grandiose concept of Falstaff: the largesse of his commanding figure, his bawdy humor, his ironic comments, and the comic and sardonic aspects of his relationship to Hal and to the world. Kline is too low-key, too polite, too controlled; his is not a grand performance. Also, we are too aware of Kline, the actor, with his putty nose and fat suit costume. Owing to his superb reviews, we eagerly watch him (almost too closely) so that he is not integrated into the play. Like all stars, Kline cannot forget that he is acting. (Nor can we)

Another disappointment is the talented Ethan Hawke in the pivotal role of Hotspur. No amount of Hawke's furious yelling can bring this complicated character to life. Hawke gives a performance on one-note--anger--and so misses the point. As a royal with a heavy royal background, Hotspur feels entitled to challenge the crown, owing to Henry's murder of Richard II. He is not just a screamer, or an angry young man without a noble cause. Hawke's exaggerated screaming throughout the play turns the role into comic relief, which is too shallow an interpretation of the role. When Hal kills Hotspur on the battlefield and he cries out, "You robbed me of my youth" --this is Hotspur's tragedy and the moment of truth for both young men caught up in the power game. It is that poignant line that expresses the personal anguish and catastrophic horror of the wars--plainly the main theme of the play.

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown" Henry says. He knows that to hold the crown he will become a killer. And the killing never stops. Henry brutally slaughters the opposition and later, Prince Hal, the future Henry V, will do the same. He immediately goes to war with France to expand the empire, thus following in the footsteps of his father.

The tragedy of the history plays is the tragedy of the English monarchs and their everlasting battles to consolidate the kingdom. Shakespeare wrote these plays when Elizabeth I was on the throne and finally she did consolidate the kingdom, but as a price, as the History plays demonstrate. Without an understanding of the historical framework and the director's ability to integrate--theatrically- the historical ambiance, this HenryIV production becomes an ordinary good guys-bad guys battle. While the play is staged as a thriller which, in itself, may be engrossing, but unfortunately, not marvelous. Nevertheless at the performance I saw, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation--a ritual on Broadway these days for all productions, good or bad. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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