Henry IV – William Shakespeare

The Lincoln Center Theater has delivered a stunning Henry IV, directed by Dakin Matthews. The script merges Parts One and Two into a playable stage version with no seams showing. Hotspur (Ethan Hawke) stole the show from Prince Hal (Michael Hayden), and Falstaff (Kevin Kline) often upstaged them both.

The sometime experience of rediscovering a play well known from study happened with this production. Or, more specifically, happened as a result of the superior acting. Hal and Hotspur play as the doubled bad boys measured against each other implicitly by their noble fathers as well as by the audience. The two also are well matched physically, more or less the same height, and with similarly inflected voices that show off every gorgeous line.

The play usually pivots on Hal as the prize in a symbolic tug of war between his two "fathers," Falstaff and King Henry. Will he quit playing the miscreant or will he assume the role "he never promised" as heir apparent? This Hal is almost but not quite the undercover Prince waiting on his moment to show himself. His "I know you all/ and will awhile uphold your unyoked idleness" fails by just a tad to persuade us that he can rule whenever he chooses.

It’s a Renaissance theme, nobility and accomplishment waiting on their appropriate discovery rather than calling attention to themselves as such. The Italians who invented the characteristic called it "sprezzatura." Hal comes off quite wonderfully, too, in his soliloquy at the Boar’s Head Tavern as he reads the letter from his father calling him to war. The moment transforms the "madcap Prince of Wales" into the royal son who will lead the country.

But perhaps best of all is the scene of stealing the crown from the bedridden, sleeping king. Here an all too human father and son bring life to the rather declamatory style of Part Two. Otherwise, quite separately, Hal competes for attention on stage with Falstaff, the fat knight and mis-leader of youth. In this regard, Dakin Matthews’ fine direction made the Prince’s seduction by Falstaff plausible, whereas the knight’s influence over Hal often feels more persuasive in the criticism than on stage. On that score, Kevin Kline played Falstaff with just enough calculation and selfishness to temper his character as jolly fat man. Picking his army from among convicts, with the help of an oblivious Justice Shallow, shows him up as morally shabby indeed.

The earlier scene of Falstaff trying to outwit the Chief Justice (Part Two, 1.2) might have profited from a bit more tension to tune up the conflict between crime and (potential) punishment. But this was a minor flaw. Kline’s Falstaff almost evokes pity for his loneliness after pushing Hal into his inevitable reformation. Determined to shun idle behavior, Hal turns away from the knight decisively. "Banish not Falstaff," the old reprobate cries out in disbelief. "Banish Falstaff and banish all the world." Hal’s response is chilling: "I do. I will." He will follow his father in learning how "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."