England is Drenched in Blood in the Fifteenth-Century Wars of Henry IV

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Henry IV, Part One
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, NJ


Early fifteenth-century British history unfolds majestically as William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One opens to the charge of horses and the clash of swords. The King, Henry Bolingbroke, bemoans his fate as assorted foes assemble large armies to unseat him. One in the north, led by Hotspur, the aggressive Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, is a consortium of Lords from England and Scotland. A second, in the south, is headquartered in Wales and led by cohorts of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As King Henry, adorned in a long, regal robe and crown, nervously talks about his fate to aides, he worries about his ne’er-do-well son, Prince Henry, or Hal, who will of course go on to be the heroic King Henry V. He has no idea where his young, unruly and irresponsible son is and fears his rowdiness will get him into trouble. This is the second of Shakespeare’s history plays and as it unfolds you feel a tidal wave of British memory coming at you, loaded with plots and subplots and featuring the bouncing, jovial and very large figure of the mercurial Sir John Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most distinctive characters.

Director Joe Discher keeps a steadfast hand on the production of Henry IV, Part One at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey that opened last week, and gets remarkably good acting from his troupe, especially from Derek Wilson as Prince Harry, Jon Barker as Henry Percy and John Ahlin as Falstaff. Discher gives the production, set in a small theater, a grand historical sweep with men on battlements and armies fighting on stage. Characters arrive and leave with a flourish and bar scenes appear as realistic as a visit to a British pub. The play has a nice combination of regal splendor, national history and down home taverns filled with friends consuming seemingly endless mugs of ale.

Unfortunately, the play gets off to an interminably slow start as the King appears and nearly puts the audience to sleep with his opening speech. He and his aides drone on and on for a good twenty minutes and the entire production seems headed for the white cliffs of Dover. Then, suddenly, with a loud roar, the bloated, bearded Falstaff arrives at a tavern, with his royal friend Prince Henry, and the play picks up majestically. From that moment on, Henry IV blossoms and in act two it positively soars. The end of the play, when the two armies go up against each other at Shrewsbury and the swords are drawn, is a white hot finish to a stirring historical drama.

Shakespeare wrote this as two separate stories, the national political story and the tale of Prince Henry, a gang of thieves and his drinking buddy Falstaff, who regales all with his bawdy humor, wide eyes, ale-soaked beard and enormous girth. The raucous tavern life of Falstaff and Henry has been dragging on for quite a while, but, minute by minute, we feel history calling both men. They are summoned to court for the start of the war and go, tying their stories to the King’s and then, in the final scenes, merging both of the play’s stories into one nicely.

Shakespeare presented a decent look at British history from 1402 to 1403, as good as theatergoers would get in that era (the play was written in the late 1590s). Early in Henry IV it is explained that Henry himself usurped the throne from King Richard II, who was then murdered. He is trying to keep it for himself amid a sea of discontented royals determined to take it from him by force. Although not very good at the political game, the King plays it through most of the play. Just before the battle, a gracious, and nervous, King tries to broker a deal with his enemies, who ignore him and ride into battle against him. He also makes peace with his son, who tells him that he never understood the young man. Young Prince Harry, who grows in stature scene by scene, gives a stirring speech to his father, telling him that in the coming battle he will show him what a fine son, and good patriot, he is. The King, eying him carefully, sees that his son has become just as strong as he had always hoped.

The play, like all of Shakespeare’s history sagas, makes great use of both national and family politics, with family members feuding with each other and royals trying to seize the crown. There are layers upon layers of deceit and treachery but, at the same time, pledges of kinship and fealty and, above all, love of England.

Falstaff steals just about every production of Henry IV and Ahlin, as the chubby drinker, does so here. What makes Falstaff such a lovable and successful character is that he funny in any century in which the plays is staged. He plays to the humorous side of the audience from the moment he steps on stage until the final moments of the play, when his head snaps into the air and he rises from the dead with a glimmer in his eyes. He lies, he cheats, he cajoles, flirts and steals, and that’s all in the first two minutes. He is an electric character, big enough in both stomach and scope to steal the show and he always does. Ahlin plays him beautifully and his eyes are always in touch with those of people in the audience. He does not walk; he struts. He does not talk, he bellows.

His straight man is Prince Henry, a man who grows in steely spirit as the play moves on until, at the end, he is a fierce warrior Prince on his way to becoming a legendary King. There is a second at the end of the play, when he looks back on the battlefield, that you know that there is something very special about him and that he will grow into greatness.

The play also features fine performances by Brent Harris as the King, Cliff Miller as Lord John. Patrick Toon as Falstaff’s drinking buddy Bardolph, Doug West as Lord Mortimer, Maxon Davis as Scotch leader Douglas and Jesse Graham as hilarious tavern chief Mistress Quickly.

Discher has them carry the story from tavern to palace t battlefield seamlessly to give the entire production areal feel of 1402 England.

The theater took great historical care of its production. Set designer Jonathan Wentz recreated the standard large one piece set from Shakespeare’s time that serves all scenes with a two story high combination tavern, royal palace and battlement. Costume designer Paul Canada did extensive research in order to dress the actors as they would have looked in 1402, right down to the colors of the uniforms worn by the King’s soldiers and their head coverings.

Despite its slow start, this Henry IV is a nice look at real British history, with all of its panoply and intrigue, and the way it proceeded from generation to generation -- bathed in blood.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Jonathan Wentz; Costumes: Paul Canada; Lighting: Mathew Adelson; Sound: Rich Dionne; Fight director: Michael Rossmy. The play is directed by Joseph Discher

comments powered by Disqus