The fortunes of McAnuff's men

Henry IV Part I
Delacorte Theater

Is there any Shakespeare constructed with more beautiful symmetry than Henry IV, Part I? The play, which depicts the maturation to manhood and monarchy of Prince Hal, soon to be Henry V, offers the young man a smorgasbord of role models. He could live a life of pleasure like his fat, foolhardy friend Falstaff; he could reject the gentility of his background and challenge the authority of his elders, as does his distant relation, Henry Percy fils, known as Hotspur; or he could follow in the calculated footsteps of his royal father and join the corporation that owns the throne. As the play neatly travels among these three camps, setting up parallel problems and juxtaposing dissimilar solutions, Shakespeare gives a graphic picture of how the world works -- how the world of power works, I should say -- and how a young man fits himself into it.

Interestingly, this is an exact mixture of the themes that emerged from the brilliant young director Des McAnuff's last two directorial assignments for the Dodger Theater Company at the Public. Wolfgang Hildesheimer's Mary Stuart retold history with a subtle skepticism that mocked the monarch's claim to a divinely inspired destiny. And the collectively created How It All Began, based on the memoir by West German anarchist Michael Baumann, examined the roots of terrorism in youth rebellion and socially condoned violence. McAnuff's particular fixation is the process through which human folly becomes sanctified by historical hype, and his extremely lucid staging of Henry IV, Part I in
Central Park latches onto the play's elegant structure, gives it a firm shake, and finds each of its pillars wobbly with moral ambiguity.

Take Kenneth McMillan’s Falstaff. Old Sir John usually comes on like a cross between Santa Claus and Zero Mostel and winds up stealing the show. Amid the dense historical exposition, the hard-to-follow claims to the throne, and the windy rhetoric that blusters through the play, it’s easier to play Falstaff broadly and give the audience an easy-to-identify good guy than to risk getting bogged down in particularizing the others. But Stuart Wurtzel’s ingenious set in Central Park instantly establishes the play’s three levels. It’s a two-story castle tower made of what looks like industrial cinder block (the corporate connection), complete with parapets, moat, and drawbridge. The King addresses his subjects from the balcony, the Percy clan does its dealings on the first floor, and Falstaff and his friends have their own space under the drawbridge (the Elizabethan version of “under the carpet”?). With this hierarchy clear from the outset, McMillan is free to be more than comic relief. Even when he’s being funny, this Falstaff eschews fat-man schtick and acts from a solid center, turning his slow, puppy-dog eyes on the Prince while madly inventing alibis for his cowardice. Yet there are treacherous aspects to Falstaff, which McMillan finds, too. Although he succeeds in convincing Prince Hal that mingling with his countrymen will later make him a more admired and understanding ruler, when it comes time to conscript men for battle Falstaff gathers a bunch of weaklings whom he regards as little more than cannon fodder and pockets their salaries. But then he delivers that immortally eloquent speech about the insanity of war (“What is honor? A word. Who hath it? He that died on Wednesday.”) – a flipflop no more disgusting than the King’s opening speech in which he mourns the deaths of English soldiers yet terms 10,000 Scots “an honorable spoil.,” or Hotspur’s deciding, drunk on his own power, to lead an outnumbered army against the King’s forces. Shakespeare has carefully hidden traces of each character in the others but McAnuff illuminates them with the figurative equivalent of one of those color wheels you use to make a Christmas tree change hues. At one time or another, the King, Hotspur, and Falstaff reveal themselves as composites of the three primary colors: royal blue, blood red, and chicken yellow.

There is a unique quality to McAnuff’s staging – not just this work but all of his I’ve seen – that is difficult to describe except that it’s like a picture in unusually sharp focus. It has a depth and richness of detail, visually and intellectually, that draws you into the play and makes intense concentration not only possible but pleasurable. Not content to follow the linear progression of Shakespeare’s historical tale, McAnuff works atomically, breaking down each morsel of the play to discover in its ingredients all the textual, emotional, and political crosscurrents. It’s not hard to notice the proliferation of double-imagery and purposeful parallels throughout Henry IV.  “Percy is but my factor,” Prince Hal blatantly tells his father in the crucial throne-room scene (thrillingly played by John Vickery’s Hal and Stephen Markle’s King), and Henry sends “counterfeits” dressed like himself into battle, just as Hal and Poins had disguised themselves as highway robbers to play a trick on Falstaff.

But the question McAnuff keeps coming back to in the play is: How do we pick our leaders? How do we know a man is capable of leading – is it what he says, or what he does? Is it a matter of acting or of action? (With an actor in the White House, how can we fail to take interest in this theme?) For King Henry, it is all an act, the ruthless manipulation of a mindless mob, and he is eager to pass along the script to Hal. In their climactic confrontation, this Henry throws the Prince down on the throne and, when he struggles to get up, pushes him back down, as if to say, “Get used to it! Practice makes perfect!” Hotspur, on the other hand, is a man of action who trusts that men will take you at your word only if you back it up with deeds; he too is happy to show the ropes to his protégé, Vernon . Director McAnuff makes much of this teaching and learning business; people are always rehearsing their roles, trying out different parts, studying each other like horny wimps trying to figure out how suave guys gets girls. Indeed, after Prince Hal reveals his royal stripes and makes his public speech challenging Hotspur to a one-on-one fight, even Falstaff apes the gestures of power by climbing onto the same platform to deliver his speech about the emptiness of honor. (Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?) This play-acting, I presume, is McAnuff’s way of suggesting that politicians succeed not because they are chosen by God or gifted by nature but because they’ve memorized the same rhetoric, the same manners – the same bullshit – through which men have always gained power over others.

Needless to say, this is a great production – thoughtful, original, provocative yet scrupulously faithful (there is no shred of an imposed “concept”) and uncommonly well-spoken, even by those actors whose performances are otherwise unimpressive, such as Todd Waring as Mortimer. If there is one point on which McAnuff might be faulted, it is his occasional indulgence of actors; Max Wright’s hooked nose and weird beard are suitable enough for the occultish Welshman Glendower, but his characteristic vocal hysteria and clutchings at the air gild the lily – just the opposite of John Bottoms, who nicely underplays the pockmarked buffoon Bardolph. And I could have done without the “Yahoo!” with which Mandy Patinkin’s Hotspur makes one boisterous exit, although otherwise it’s hard to fault his performance; Hotspur’s death – in a fantastically exciting fight scene – unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes, that this man so full of life should die so young, and for what? John Vickery’s Hal is a pretty-boy preacher’s son who thinks he’s getting away with murder when in fact he’s being protected on all sides. Stephen Markle’s King Henry starts off badly with too much heavy breathing but improves considerably. Significantly, smaller roles receive just as much attention as the principals; in particular, Philip Casnoff as Poins, Larry Block as Gadshill, Margaret Whitton as Lady Percy, and Robert Westenberg as Vernon do far more than mark time among royalty. The couple of times McAnuff goes outside of Shakespeare are useful enough to be forgiven; when the archetypal miles glorioso Douglas (Ralph Byers) rushes onstage in a huge beaver coat and armadillo armor, you just have to laugh – he looks like something out of Monty Python; and the absurdity of Falstaff fighting for his country is eerily underscored when he enters dressed for battle with Bardolph on a leash, like Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.

In short, this is a Henry IV to be seen and savored. And when you realize that this is the 28-year-old director’s first crack at Shakespeare (for which thank Joseph Papp), the mind reels with astonishment – and anticipation of the fine future McAnuff has ahead of him.

Soho News, September 1, 1981