By 1964, when Orson Welles was shooting The Chimes of Midnight, his faithless but reverent mash-up of the Henriad, his stock had fallen so far he had to secure the production’s modest-beyond-all-modesty budget via the pretense of making another film entirely. Like King Henry V, Welles demonstrated visionary brilliance at an early age, but Falstaff was always the Shakespearean figure with whom he identified most closely. The dissolute, swollen old knight with whom king-in-waiting Prince Hal carouses in his youth only to spurn him once he ascends to the throne was a character whom Welles, who never learned self-discipline or deference and who died a corpulent beggar, understood in the marrow of his creaky bones.
At 72, Stacy Keach—who plays Falstaff under a putty nose and padding in the Shakepeare Theatre’s clear and stirring new repertory of Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2—is already more than two decades older than Welles was when he directed himself in the part. But Keach, late of Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated Nebraska, has been doing this role since his twenties, and his utter command of it feels matter-of-fact. When he was in Frost/Nixon at the Kennedy Center in 2008, his transformation into the 37th president felt more revelatory, probably because he looks exactly nothing like Nixon, a real person with a familiar mug. Here, Keach is so good that his goodness seems inevitable, tempting a critic to speed past it to praise Matthew Amendt’s shaded, protean turn as Prince Hal, or John Keabler’s wiry, fearless Hotspur (only in Part 1, though he plays in other roles in Part 2), or Ted van Griethuysen’s hilariously pliable Justice Shallow (only in Part 2, although he does sport an alarming false beard and wig as Glendower in Part 1).
Perhaps in compensation for that fool Wookie get-up he’s made to wear, van Griethusen gets to open Part 2 looking like a million bucks. He performs the prologue in the role of Rumor, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward interprets the Bard’s call for a costume “all painted with tongues” as a smart three-piece suit with a bowtie. He’s reading a tabloid with the headline “ELVIS IS ALIVE!” just to drive the anachronistic point home. It’s a Dreamworks Animation–style joke all out of key with the rest of the show, but it’s dispensed with right at the top, and it works.
The cast, directed by company honcho Michael Kahn, is an embarrassment of riches, actually. Even back-benchers like Hal’s pal Ned Poins and the brilliantly monikered Doll Tearsheet leave a lasting impression thanks to Jude Sandy (also a pretty good name, that) and Maggie Kettering. A couple of veterans of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s terrific 2013 Wallenstein, Steve Pickering and the thunder-voiced Derrick Lee Weeden, make the most of their scenes as the Earl of Worcester/Pistol and the Lord Chief Justice, who pursues Falstaff for petty crimes and fears Prince Hal will punish him once Hal becomes king.
For both shows, Alexander Dodge’s set is a monolithic but surprisingly versatile two-story edifice of gray wood. It lends a coziness to the ribald Boar’s-Head Tavern scenes and a claustrophobic tension to the sick and anxious King Henry’s lonely bedchamber but swings open impressively for the exteriors, with the more wintry and cerebral Part 2 seeming to have fewer leaves on its fake trees. (There’s even a night sky in the background, though the stars swing noticeably, perhaps buffeted by solar winds.)
When closed, the set has a silhouette of England emblazoned upon it, a reminder of the stakes. The military and political narrative of these two plays is King Henry’s struggle to retain the crown against the rebellious factions who only just helped him wrest it from Richard II. (These productions of Part 1 and Part 2 borrow some material from Shakespeare’s Richard II.) The armor Hould-Ward has created for the two sides—silver and brown for King Henry’s army, gold and black for the insurgents—looks cool and is functional, too, helping us keep the combatants sorted.
But the chess game of six-centuries-dead kings isn’t what resonates. As ever, it’s the father-son story. Or in Part 1, the two father-son stories: King Henry (Edward Gero, exuding his usual gravitas in one of the less glamorous title roles in the Shakespearean canon, though his dying speech in Part 2 has a tenderness that catches us off guard after all the brooding) and Prince Hal; and Henry Percy (Kevin McGuire) and Hotspur. The latter is so fierce and unconflicted a warrior that King Henry secretly wishes it was Hotspur, not Hal, who was his own son.
But Hal is his father’s son. Even while he’s still boozing and whoring his youth away with Falstaff, he’s already a political animal, soliloquizing his strategic return to continence and sobriety. “My reformation, glittering o’er my fault/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”
Amendt makes the Hal of Part 1 such a cunning little shit that when he and Hotspur at last face off in the Battle of Shrewsbury, you almost root for the latter to gut him. In fact, Keabler guts us, giving Hotspur a death that feels appropriately tragic and somber, a criminal waste of young valor. (Part 2 gets in a sly joke about Keabler’s return as Sir John Coleville.)
Welles created one of his most-imitated sequences in his 10-minute version of Shrewsbury. He had only 100 or so extras but he made the field of bloodshed seem to extend infinitely beyond the frame. It seems only fitting that this Henry IV’s fight directors, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, are a father-son team. Every good Henry IV is a family affair.