This week I am at a loss. Everyone has been running around raving about The Beard of Avon and Henry IV, both of which bored me, the first to an inconceivable degree, the second slightly less. Either my colleagues have all been so bludgeoned by the last few months’ flood of theatrical dreadfulness that they’re desperate for something to like; or, as usual, sanity flies out the window when Shakespeare arrives. There are things to praise in both productions, but I begin to think old Will was wrong about the worst not being the worst while we could say so.
Let’s start with a simple fact: Shakespeare, like Brecht, wrote his own plays. That our era has expended so much effort trying to discredit both men is a sign of our own stupidity and fraudulence, not theirs. Granted that Shakespeare (again like Brecht) had flaws, as well as a concept of theatrical authorship somewhat different from today’s. It’s still so easy to perceive, with a little intelligent effort, the degree to which he spun his borrowed materials into dramatic gold, that anyone who tries to remove him from his authorial position can safely be called an ignoramus. In crime or politics, conspiracy theories are tempting because the consequences are huge and hideous; the popularity of nutty, obscurantist theories about who wrote Shakespeare tells you that people equate his plays with enormities like the Ripper murders and JFK’s assassination. That’s what’s wrong: Wonderful as they are, they’re just plays. Somebody wrote them. It was Shakespeare. To say he couldn’t have written them because he lacked an aristocrat’s education and experience is stupid snobbery.
Shakespeare wrote the life of King Henry IV as two full-length plays. Many before Dakin Matthews have struggled to mash them together as one evening, thereby missing the point. Standing separately, each has both its individual integrity and its parallels to the other, like two panels of a diptych (a triptych if you add Henry V); merged, they make an ungainly, indecisive, and sometimes confusing thing. At least, they do so here: Indecisiveness is the reigning quality of Jack O’Brien’s briskly paced but stylistically blank production. The only decisive element is Ralph Funicello’s set, which asserts that medieval England was a big, bold, stark-timbered place, sparsely furnished, all lofty alcoves and vertiginous, Jessner-like stairways.
In Shakespeare’s Part I, King Henry battles his own guilt, his wayward son, and the onetime supporters who have rebelled against him; in Part II, a lesser rebellion is quelled by deceit rather than bloodshed, against a background of sickness and aging that climaxes in King Henry’s death, after he and his heir have at last come to terms. Gluing the parts together with patches taken out of sequence turns two purposive dramas into one meandering epic, an unwieldy three hours and 45 minutes long. Many of the performances, as if taking their cue from the merger, give the blurry effect of images printed out of register. Something is definitely wrong when first-rate actors like Dana Ivey and Jeff Weiss seem excessive and imprecise; Michael Hayden, in the near insoluble role of Prince Hal, displays vocal beauty but no character choice whatever. Ethan Hawke’s Hotspur, one of the few to make his role real and vibrant, regrettably chooses to contrast with Hayden by displaying a complete absence of vocal beauty, while Audra McDonald renders his wife as the soloist in an oratorio. Richard Easton’s Henry is a beautiful performance of the wrong king; surely this plaintive, fretful figure is Richard II to the life. Anyone who saw Larry Bryggman’s Henry IV, back when the Public Theater did both plays, knows that this monarch must be as bull-headed as he is guilt-racked.
Finally there is Kevin Kline as the play’s anti-monarch, Falstaff, a creature about whom his creator was as deeply divided as the rest of us. Shakespeare made Falstaff sublimely lovable; he also made him a disgusting slimeball. In real life, nobody likes a fat drunk. Falstaff is a fat drunk who is also a thief, a swindler, a liar, and a coward, dishonoring corpses and betraying friends. We, like Hal, must love him despite all that; this is the challenge of the role. Kline’s solution—as you might expect from one of the stage’s master underplayers and ironists—is to sidestep the challenge by toning down everything about the character. This mild, sauntering fellow, on whom the fake added weight and the snowy beard sit so symmetrically, is unimaginable as the blowhard guzzler of gallons of sack. As GBS said about Beerbohm Tree’s Falstaff, he only needs one thing to play the role—”to be born again as unlike himself as possible.”
There is, in contrast, a lot of good acting and flamboyant color in Doug Hughes’s shouty but sparkish staging of The Beard of Avon, but 2.5 hours of jokey Shakespeare allusions, in what amounts to an overwritten Saturday Night Live skit, is more than even a deconstructionist could bear, especially since only about a dozen of the jokes have any punch. Nor does the premise—Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays except that he did, because he was a dumb clodpoll but he really wasn’t—make any sense whatever. Shakespeare knew a lot more about dramaturgy than Ms. Freed; any literary manager who recommends this play to a theater should have his or her head spiked on Tower Bridge.