Naughty Uncle John

In today’s Wall Street Journal I file the first in a series of reports on my summer theater travels, a review from Washington, D.C., of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of both parts of Henry IV. Here’s an excerpt.

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Sir John Falstaff is the sneakiest scene-stealer in all of Shakespeare. “Henry IV” isn’t really about the fat and roguish knight, but no sooner does he make his entrance than the tablecloth is pulled out from under King Henry and Prince Hal. If the cast and director don’t look sharp, those two characters, central though they are to the plot, will never manage to pull it back again.

HENRYIVPT2_073-a-333x500.jpgPart of what distinguishes the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of both parts of “Henry IV” is the scrupulous care that Michael Kahn has taken to ensure that all three men share the spotlight. Even though Stacy Keach has been cast as Falstaff, Mr. Kahn never yields to the understandable temptation to exalt him over Edward Gero and Matthew Amendt, who play the troubled king and his wastrel son. Indeed, the thematic integrity and high seriousness of Mr. Kahn’s staging are impressive in virtually every way–which doesn’t mean that his “Henry IV” lacks for laughter, just that it gets the proportions right.

The integrity starts with Mr. Kahn’s decision to mount both parts of “Henry IV” in rotating repertory, rather than presenting only the first part (as is common in this country) or mounting a brutally abridged single-evening marathon staging of both parts (as Lincoln Center Theater did in 2003, with Kevin Kline playing Falstaff). To do it in any other way is to disserve the greatest and most complex of Shakespeare’s history plays…

Mr. Kahn’s production places Hal at center stage while simultaneously giving King Henry and Falstaff their due. The casting is the key: Mr. Gero gives a rich-voiced performance full of doubt and resolve, one of the best pieces of classical acting that I’ve seen in recent seasons. Mr. Amendt, by contrast, is a modern-sounding Hal–he might almost have stepped out of a romcom–who struggles to put away childish things and fulfill the awesome duties that devolve upon him with his father’s death and his ascension to the throne.

And what of Falstaff? If you think of him as a flamboyant lord of misrule, you may be be a bit disappointed by Mr. Keach’s low-keyed performance. Even when dandling a red-haired whore on his gouty knee, he never lets you forget that he’s playing an old man: His manner is genial and avuncular, his gait slow and unsure, and when he recalls having heard “the chimes at midnight,” he sounds less melancholy than nostalgic….

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Henry IV:

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Almanac: Isaiah Berlin on realism

“Those who heard him lecture never forgot the experience–how he once said, with memorable bite: ‘whenever you hear a man speak of “realism,” you may always be sure that this is the prelude to some bloody deed.'”
Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

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