I begin rehearsals for William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One at Baldwin Wallace University tomorrow. I vented my concept onto the page, and here is a sneak peek at my vision for the production…
I’m always surprised at how few people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One. Henry V, Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor (and Verdi’s adaptation, Falstaff) are much more popular and seen quite frequently on world stages. Frankly, it’s a challenge to get theatre students excited about H4.1, and I think its classification as a history turns many off. (Never mind its considerable influence on pop culture phenomenon like the Game of Thrones novels, HBO’s The Wire, and countless others) As I hope you’ve discovered (and if not, I hope you will), this is a marvelous work by a master of the stage, which combines many elements of Shakespeare’s best works into a near perfect piece of theatre. Depending on whom you sympathize with or are drawn to, the play can be classified several ways:
Falstaff ‘s Comedy
Hotspur ‘s Tragedy
Hal’s Romance *
*The Shakespearean kind, not the beach novels that your Aunt Harriet reads.
Everything I do at BW is based on what I believe is best for the needs of my students. Season selection adheres to a long set of criteria – the most important of which is the educational value and potential to challenge and inspire growth amongst our student population. One of my continuing goals as an instructor is to sell students (and faculty and staff) on these great classic works. People can be resistant to unfamiliar entertainment that isn’t based on a comic book or doesn’t have a big splashy opening number. Once again, the word “education emerges.” It’s my sincere hope that third graders will attend, and that we’ll have a packed high school matinee. In my experience, kids like Shakespeare, and it’s never too early to introduce them to the Bard. Bragging parent alert: my 22 month-old son has already enjoyed BW’s Hamlet, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pyramus and Thisbe, and several more on television. Perhaps the iambic pentameter has a hypnotic effect?
At it’s simplest, H4.1 is a play about the education of the king and his son: two individuals who were not born as direct heirs to the throne. They’re learning on the fly, and enduring an extreme example of on–the-job-training. I’m reminded a little of Queen Elizabeth II and her father, King George VI.
There are lessons that begin at a chalkboard, but necessitate eventually jumping to your feet and experiencing life. We can all agree that plays should be performed and not only just discussed in a classroom. Hal escaped the court to learn by experience. Hotspur would much rather charge on a horse than talk diplomacy.
Shakespeare’s version of this story chronicles Hal and his father’s education. Falstaff, Worcester and Glendower are among the many instructors. The tavern, the court and the battlefield are their classrooms. The stage is our classroom and we’ll transform it into a tavern, a court and a battlefield. Much the same way that Hal and Falstaff create a court of the Boar’s Head Tavern, we will create England on our simple, sparingly furnished stage. The design is what it is: we are on a stage. Early discussions of concept placed the set in a literal recreated prep-school classroom, but after spending time in the glorious backstage right of the JPT, we were inclined to celebrate and embrace the physical space as it is. There is bit nostalgia and romance about standing in the wings of a beloved theatre. As an actor I’m used to watching plays from that location, and now we’ll invite the audience to share that experience to a degree.
Our cast is comprised of college students and a member of the faculty. We will not try to hide this. Actors will play themselves: Students playing the characters who live during the historical time the play is set. Aside from your excellent auditions, there were very specific reasons why you were cast in the roles you are playing. Many of you share common traits with your characters, some of you are great at stage combat, a few of you needed to play against type, etc… Melanie is already working with you to craft looks that incorporate your research and sense of style.
Our audience will see modern dress mixed with period costumes. They will walk in expecting to sit in the JPT house, and will be guided by ushers, actors or other patrons to the stage. Fight rehearsals can be in plain view. Warming up on stage while audience walks in will be encouraged. Talking to family and friends is perfectly fine, as is sitting in your dressing room until curtain. I’ve always viewed our performances here as workshops (not even reaching the preview stage), which plays right into the mission of educational institutions. This will be a blatant display of that philosophy. The atmosphere should be fun, like a concert or gathering of friends. I want to avoid all accusations of pretension. Shakespeare should be celebrated, not worshiped. It’s no accident we selected stage right to present the piece. Structurally, its very similar to the multi-tiered Elizabethan stages – such as the outdoor Globe and indoor Blackfrier’s.
Strewn about the space will be our research, a few pieces of furniture, curtains and the contents of the theatre. In the balcony will be a band and whoever wants to sing during the pre-show and intermission. On the floors and walls will be a giant chalk-like painting of England. In a corner will be a solitary chalkboard, with a few bits of broken and used chalk…
William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One runs October 9-13 in the John Patrick Theatre at Kleist Center for Arts and Drama. For more information, visit http://www.bw.edu/theatre