`Henry IV, Part I' is a familiar story of ruler and son

Stage: theater, music, dance

January 15, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

The father -- a politician, statesman and spin doctor of the first order -- made it to the top the hard way, and as leader of a powerful nation, he expects his son to carry on the family dynasty. Problem is, the boy can't tear himself away from his partying and practical jokes. Can a wanton playboy ever rise to the august role of commander-in-chief, or is he destined to choke on his silver spoon?

George Bush the first might relate to such a problem; he faced one very like it with his son, the prodigal namesake who became our current president. And as patrons of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington will be reminded starting Tuesday, the Bard's knowledge of power and personality was so complete that his plays remain spookily relevant.

British director Bill Alexander, a former associate artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, opens a new production of Henry IV, Part I at the Washington theater. The first in a tetralogy of Shakespeare plays on 15th-century England, it gives us Henry Bolingbroke, a one-time duke who used all his wiles to seize the throne from his profligate predecessor, Richard II. As the new king, Bolingbroke, now known as Henry IV, enjoys an unusual distinction in British history: He attained power through action, not inheritance.

That's also his biggest problem. During the first half of his reign, the real-life Bolingbroke constantly faced insurrection. That turmoil frames the play.

Alexander, who first directed Henry IV, Part I, in Britain more than 20 years ago, knows that before Shakespeare's time, his country's history was told as "a chronicle of battles" and as the story of those who came out on top. The Bard changed all that, though, exploring for the first time the human psyches that drove such events.

By the time he wrote Henry IV, Part I -- probably in 1596, at the age of 32 -- Shakespeare had, says the director, "developed the ability to write these huge, complex, multilayered dramas that are radically different from anything that had been written up to that point. The results amounted to the invention of a whole dramatic form that is still second to none."

That form unifies the simple and the epic. Though the father-son dynamic is central to Henry IV, it is also but one of many dimensions.

A degree of humor is supplied by Falstaff, a raunchy roustabout who spends his time drinking, gambling, thieving and, in effect, mentoring Bolingbroke's eldest son, Henry, better known as Prince Hal, at the local tavern.

Falstaff is more than comic relief. He dominates a subplot set among the ordinary folk whose lives are shaped by the rulers' decisions. He's also an early dad figure for the hero, who during the first half of the play spurns his father's world. The Falstaff-Hal friendship counterpoints the increasingly serious one between king and prince, offering audiences plenty of chance to ponder the complexities of duty, family responsibility and choice.

Shakespeare sharpens the drama by pitting Hal against a rival, the irascible young warrior named Hotspur. This disenfranchised lord has designs on reclaiming the throne for his family and the impulsiveness to act them out.

In Act I, Bolingbroke wishes aloud that his own son might be as bold as the aptly named Hotspur. That thought sets up the clash that will bring the play's interpersonal events to a climax -- and, by extension, set the course of history. In the Bard's dramatic universe, the personal drives the political; the psychological gives shape to history. To that end, says Keith Baxter, who plays the title role, Alexander explores long-neglected nuances of these characters, finding the many layers of humor not just in Falstaff and his pals, but also in the bickering rebels.

Baxter, a British stage veteran, says Alexander also helps to "reclaim" Henry IV, showing that he is not the one-dimensional "King Gruff and Grim" he often appears to be.

"I've always felt Bolingbroke gets a raw deal in productions," says Baxter, who portrayed Hal for director Orson Welles in 1960. "He's not just an icy, vengeful character bent on power."

Among other things, says the actor, Shakespeare explores in Bolingbroke an all-too-familiar predicament, one that develops between powerful fathers and their sons.

"In the presence of such a father, you become inarticulate," he says, harking, perhaps inadvertently, to the president some see as America's own Prince Hal. "How do you solve that dilemma? That's as up-to-date as it was 600 years ago."

The Shakespeare Theatre (450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington) presents "Henry IV, Part I" Tuesday through March 13. Show times vary. Tickets are $16-$66. For more information, call 877-487-8849 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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