Director Davis McCallum and the rest of the cast and crew of the Pearl Theatre Company’s current production of HENRY IV, PART ONE would have done well to listen to him.
After a lively song and dance number added to the opening of the show in which the company sings a boisterous toast to the Boar’s Head tavern, the production’s energy quickly dissipates, rarely to be seen again in the next three hours. Played on the one hand with an alienating reverence for Shakespeare’s language that makes performers seem like they are presenting the script rather than embodying or breathing life into it—as if it is a relic not to be handled too roughly lest it crumble—and on the other hand with a sense of interpretive freedom that allows for questionable line cuts and emendations, this HENRY IV never finds solid footing or identity. The result is a scattered and sluggish trudge through one of Shakespeare’s richest and liveliest plays.
At the heart of the production’s trouble is an inconsistency in its decisions and vision. When Prince Hal (John Brummer) is called away from the taverns and brothels of Eastcheap to report to his father’s military campaign against a rebel uprising, he says of a passed-out Falstaff (Dan Daily), “I’ll procure this fat rogue a charge of foot, and I know his death will be a march of twelve score,” but McCallum has cut the sardonic latter half of that line, presumably in an attempt to preserve our sense of Hal’s fondness for his drunken companion, a feeling actively troubled by the script. Although this decision is to avoid rather than embrace one of Shakespeare’s great complications, the larger problem is that the effect of the cut goes wanting in the rest of the play.
For the affection between the great carouser and waggish youth seems strangely absent here. Throughout the show, Daily plays Falstaff with an air of pretension, a sense that he buys into his own dissembled pledges to “give over” this life of drink and thievery, or that he his villainous company has been the ruin of him. Rarely do we see Falstaff’s keen sense of self-awareness that raises him above his lowly companions as a grand master of revels. The conviction Daily gives this Falstaff makes him something of a Man of La Mancha type caricature to be mocked by his associates.
Accordingly, Brummer’s Hal never seems invested in this relationship. He joins the rest of the bar crowd in treating Falstaff as a dissembling fool, and so we see little evidence of what has brought these two social opposites together. Shakespeare introduces us to this relationship at its tail end, bittersweet because of the sense that the two have spent a great many hours developing a strong affection in their shared carousing. In this production, however, Brummer’s Hal is either already checked out or has never achieved much warmth for the fat knight.
These are two characters sharing company but not affection. Rarely has “my sweet wag” sounded more hollow.
The cast size of Shakespeare’s histories and the economics of professional theater make character doubling such a necessity that the decisions of who and how to double becomes an important directorial decision. Again McCallum’s choices are odd. It is jarring to have Chris Mixon spend most of his time as the Earl of Worcester, a strong voice of indignation in the rebel camp, and then show up as Hotspur’s servant and, more prominently, in a kerchief and apron as Mistress Quickly. Sean McNall’s triple duty as the young barfly Poins, the elder statesman Northumberland, and the Scottish warrior Douglas is similarly off-putting. Character doubling and gender-bending can certainly be successful, but this production seemingly wants us to ignore that the Hostess claiming her womanhood in support of an oath is played by the same man that stands to defy a king, or that Northumberland looks to be his son’s younger.
None of these or the production’s other interpretive choices are objectionable simply in and of themselves. Through hundreds of years, the interpretive field of staging Shakespeare remains vast and welcoming. The decisions of McCallum and the Pearl Theatre Company, however, suffer from scattered inconsistency. If Hal is in a modern motorcycle jacket and jeans, why do we need the strained British accent? If other costumes and setting stresses periodization, why must Hal tell Falstaff to hide “in the bathroom” rather than “behind the arras”? Is a lighting design that accentuates every bead of saliva that escapes a speaker’s mouth really necessary? Lacking here is a clear interpretive vision for the production, and the result is dissonance rather than cogency.
Ultimately, the clutter of this production engulfs any hope of energy or vividness. It is a slow three hours trudging through the script rather than bringing it to life. Perhaps all of its vigor is spent in the rowdy opening dance number, or perhaps it was lost in the muddled space between script and production, but whatever the case, this is a curiously stolid HENRY IV.
HENRY IV, PART ONE
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Davis McCallum
February 15 – March 17
The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018