WIL Festival 6.2: “The First Part of Henry IV”

 Plays about the life and times of Henry V, affectionately referred to as Hal (Nikolas Hoback), were big business in 1580s and ’90s England. There were multiple versions, some treating him as a hero and others as a villain who comes to be reformed, before William Shakespeare came on the scene. The History play genre was a new thing, brought to great success by an earlier company called the Queen’s Men. (Check out their plays, here.) I am convinced by Jim Marino’s argument that “The First Part of Henry IV with the life and death of Henry sir-named Hotspurre” was a revision, rethought by Shakespeare as part of a tetralogy, what some call the “Henriad” after Homer’s Iliad, rather than a stand-alone piece.

Similar to thinking about Shakespeare as an expert reviser, watching an “original practice” or First Folio performance take on any of the plays challenges your assumptions about what is and isn’t there. I discussed in a previous post the useful and necessary fiction that are critical editions of plays: they pull together all the extant versions of a play with a name like “King Lear” into one place. This isn’t really a different act than Shakespeare’s revising an old play new again, except that critical editing isn’t interested in (and typically doesn’t retain) performative coherence. And it’s not objective either: critical editing creates its own myths about what we want a play to mean at a particular point in time. Watching an O.P. production, a performance that picks one version of Shakespeare’s text and sticks with it, illuminates just what those myths are.

So what happened in this performance, where the actors trust their text?

From left: Mikki Lipsey (Duke of Northumberland) and Isabella Buckner (Hotspurre).

The big revelation for me tonight was the famous Honor speech, given by Falstaffe (Brian Burger). Inveighing against the notion of “honor” and brave deeds as something worth striving for, Falstaffe offers us the counterpoint the old moral code on which the English monarchy had been founded. Falstaffe is a big, juicy, and difficult part, one that actors will go a lifetime waiting for, and frequently win major acting awards once there. Aside for the play-acting scene with Hal in Eastcheap, the Honor speech on the way to Battle at Shrewsbury is most well-known. I have never seen it done any other way but as alone, as a soliloquy. (See here.) That is, until tonight.

In the WIL Fest performance, Falstaffe gives this speech with Hal present. It is unclear to me as yet whether that means the speech is Falstaffe discovering this personal code of ethics for himself or trying to convince Hal this fight is worthless but for the money they might gain, and should go home. At the very least, the later is now an option. I actually thought there had been a mistake in the moment, that Hoback had merely missed his cue to leave the stage. But the instinct I’ve learned to rely on, “trust the text,” sent me checking. And lo!

From the First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works (1623), p. 70.

“Manet” means to remain, and is typically used when a great number of characters exit the stage, but not all. Immediately after this stage direction, Falstaff gives his honor speech. A new and complex range of possible meanings open up when the speech is actually meant to convince another listener in the world of the play, rather than as a darkly discontent voiced only to the self. (Orson Welles gets it right, mostly, in Chimes at Midnight, here.)

From left: Joel Patrick Durham (Poinz), Brian Burger (Falstaffe), and Nikolas Hoback (Prince Hal), with Shandi Muff prompting.


 King Henry IV faces a rebellion led by the Mortimers and Percys, while crown prince Hal parties, jokes, and drinks with Sir John Falstaff and his low-life cronies. At the Battle of Shrewsbury, fierce Hotspur leads the rebel’s charge. Hal kills Hotspur, Falstaff acts cowardly, and Henry IV’s forces win. [From the playbill.]

Clever Cues

 This has been the summer of female Hotspurs: women playing Hal’s foil as a woman. Oregon Shakespeare Festival has Alejandra Escalante as Hostspur in part one, and then as Rumor and a number of other small roles but always present onstage in part two. OPS Fest cast Isabella Buckner as their Hotspurre, who also chose to play the role as a woman. Both cases challenge assumptions and push back against costumed codes of femininity (again, useful considering the logic of gender identity in the sixteenth century discussed in a previous post). Two moments cued by Prompter Shandi Muff helped give voice to this added opposition Hotspurre presents for Hal.

The Prompter paused the first scene between the King and Hotspurre, the one where he refuses to give up his hostages from a recent war (and the income they represent in ransom):

PROMPTER: What makes you so hot…as in fury?
HOTSPURRE: Well, they told me I had to wear a dress for this.
PROMPTER: So, you were looking for a white pantsuit?

Hotspurre does not don a dress for the rest of the play after this scene of public, political accounting. The moment highlights that Judith Butler mainstay: all identity is performative. The dress was an act as much as Hotspurre’s battlecry, intended to illicit a set of sympathies and responses in their favor. Commenting on the costume shows us as an audience that Hotspurre has authority issues not only with his King, but with social codes more generally. The pantsuit quip was in reference to a historical fact that became popularized in relation to the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign: it was not seen as appropriate for female senators to wear pants on Capitol Hill until the 1990s (see here, here, and here). Aside from the gender inequality being highlighted, being explained for the audience is the inherent performance that goes in to negotiating with a King—that there is always a filter for him.

From left: Sullivan Mackintosh (Lady Percy) and Isabella Buckner (Hotspurre).

Underscoring Hotspurre’s resistance to accepted social codes—then and now—was the maintaining of Lady Percy’s (Sullivan Mackintosh) gender identity so that the couple was a same-sex one.

PROMPTER: Lady, how did she propose?
LADY PERCY: Over waffles, milkshakes—
PROMPTER: Was there bacon?
PROMPTER: Let’s continue with the proposal story.
LADY PERCY: We were having waffles but not bacon. I’m a vegetarian. When I was drinking my milkshakes, well, there was a ring at the bottom. Points for creativity, but it was all sticky!
HOTSPURRE: She’s missing the part where (miming) I took it out of her hand, popped it in my mouth (mimes rinsing in mouth), and (mimes putting it on Lady Percy’s finger inelegantly) plop!

Aside from building out the backstory of the Percy’s, who get little stage time otherwise, the moment comically humanizes the otherwise odd pairing of personalities. In the text itself, Hotspurre seems too rough and hot-headed for the considerate and politic Lady Percy. By dramatizing some of their backstory, the audience has a chance to catch-up on their dynamic rather than be confused by it.

Interesting Interruptions

 One trend I have noticed in responses to environmental disruptions is the efficacy of those that question the logic of a character’s choices. The payoff typically seems to be both comic and community-building, acknowledging to the audience that these stories don’t always make sense. (You know, like the end of the last Star Trek movie, where, somehow, the Beastie Boys save the cosmos. But you go with it.) Falstaffe is easy bait in this regard, so given to hyperbole as he is:

PROMPTER: Speaking of running, tell me how many steps you have on your FitBit, Falstaffe.
FALSTAFFE: (Taps his wristband.) Seven.

More serious characters can also prove fruitful targets for the Prompter. At that point, unlike the comic characters for which we are positioned to mock, a serious character can turn to playgoers for assistance:

PROMPTER: Glendower, do call these spirits from the vasty deep.
GLENDOWER: Come to me, spirits from the vasty deep!
(Audiences makes a range of casper-quality sounds.)
PROMPTER: I underestimated you.
HOTSPURRE: Look, I can do that, too!
(Waves hands similarly. Audience responds similarly.)

The benefit of training your audience to hiss and cheer is that, in unexpected moments, they will participate in ways you hadn’t anticipated. If I were to stretch so far, I might argue that the audience’s support of Glendower’s supernatural qualities is a show of support for the magic of theatre itself.

From left: Isabella Buckner (Hotspurre) and Nikolas Hoback (Prince Hal).

Distilling Dramaturgy

There is an aspect of O.P. playing I haven’t talked about yet, but that critics do love to fight over when it comes to this kind of performance: what is called “false” or “redundant” cues. This is in part because the most famous redundant cue, in “The Merchant of Venice,” has yet to enter this company’s repertory. This is also because the debate is pretty much impossible to test in any rigorous way. The debate goes that early modern playwrights would sometimes have multiple instances of the same double iamb (two metrical feet or four syllables, the length of the average cue line) in a character’s text. Another actor, listening for their cue, would then come in multiple times by accident hearing the same cue over and over; they would be cut off from their entrance as the former character needed to continue speaking. As a form of embedded direction, it gives the effects of (1) a sycophantic figure eager for attention, (2) a character who has important information that no one will listen to, i.e., a Cassandra, or (3) produce a sense of exasperation in the actor that makes an otherwise throw-away moment comic.

The last example is something along the lines of the quadruple take as a comic strategy, with the additional variable of the fact that, in a first performance at least, the actors don’t know it is coming. And that is the problem. Other critics contend that there are too many common ends to speeches, “My lord” for example, for this to have worked. That, and the effect couldn’t be replicated after the first performance once the cat is out of the bag. Considering that companies did about 20 different shows a month with little repetition, could not those moments be forgotten? The jury is very much still out on this relatively new debate, mostly because we can’t test it. There aren’t companies rehearsing and performing in rep following the period, so it is only a hypothesis in the academic community.

This is precisely why practitioners and scholars need to work together more often in performance-as-research projects. We have similar theories on both sides of the fence, but can’t test them, can’t write about them meaningfully from specific cases. For example, while there isn’t a double iamb false cue in “The First Part of Henry IV,” Jessica Hirschhorn’s first entrance as Hostess Quickly nearly acts as one. The cue for her first entrance was “thou lovest me.” As three words, that may actually be too much information to listen for. Falstaffe and Hal, debating immediately before this, have the word “me” three times, and all in metrical positions where they would be emphasized in the line. In this performance, while this is not the whole cue, the one-word repetition served as false cues to Hirschhorn. She tried to make entrances in each of these cases, but was unable to do so as they happened in the middle of long speeches by both other characters until her actual cue.

So what was the effect? Whether designed as a redundant cue or a product of the fact that Hirschhorn knew that this could happen, she played it to comic effect. When she eventually did come in on her entrance, she could play her line, “O Jesu, my lord the prince!” with all of the built up exasperation and annoyance from the previous false entrances. It quite literally directed her to be aggravated rather than panicked. It begs the question: just because the cue is a double iamb, what amount of that cue are players listening for? What amount can they listen for at first entrances as opposed to in the midst of a scene, especially one with a great deal of stichomythia? To what extent was intentionally designed redundant cues a product of unintended interruptions that naturally happened in performance? Is the redundant cue a product of actors, rather than vice versa? Lucky for us, we have about eleven more seasons where we get to see two new shows incorporated into the Original Practice Shakespeare Company’s repertory. We have the luxury to wait, see, and found out.

From left: Jonah Leidigh (Vernon), Joel Patrick Durham (Douglas), and Isabella Buckner (Hotspurre).

 Ready for more? Up next weekend at Laurelhurst Park:

Friday, 7:00PM “Richard III”
Saturday, 2:00PM “As You Like It”
Saturday, 7:00PM “Hamlet”
Sunday, 2:00PM “All’s Well That Ends Well”
Sunday, 7:00PM “A Midsommer Night’s Dreame”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Alas, I won’t be able to attend the final weekend of performances, but I would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to contact me or simply comment below. You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.

  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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