fall/staff + shake/spear: to reject falstaff is to reject shakespeare

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had to write a short review for class on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One. I was so excited that this was one of the two plays performed at this year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival–it is my favorite Shakespeare play! In my review I focus on the great Sir John Falstaff because….how could I not?! Overall, the performance was great and I had a lot of fun experiencing Henry IV in theatre for the first time!

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In theatre, not all roles are created equal. Some roles, to name a few of Shakespeare’s most memorable, bear the weight of timeless legacy: Hamlet, Iago, Cleopatra, King Lear. But this school of sacrosanct stage players would be incomplete without its witty constituent, Sir John Falstaff, and in the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s rendition of Henry IV, Pt. One, actor David Rainey’s portrayal of “Sack-and-Sugar Jack” pays proper tribute to his character by bringing to light the qualities that not only reflect a comedic Lord of Misrule spewing wisdom and transcending social value systems; Rainey’s portrayal also reminds us of Falstaff’s one true vulnerability: his unwavering love for his protégée, Prince Hal.

That cowardice is one of Falstaff’s debasing characteristics is a topic for scholarly debate not to be explored here. Yet Rainey bestows Falstaff’s cowardice with a benevolence that only cajoles the audience into a loving embrace with the man that “lards the lean earth as he walks.” As he gives the false account of his heroic fighting in Act II, Scene IV where he fights “eleven buckram men grown out of two,” he jabs the air with his dagger with a vigor that quickly disappears when in actual confrontation. Rainey inflects this travesty with such comedic relief and likeness that the audience cannot help but love Falstaff more.

More importantly, Rainey’s rendering of Falstaff is clearest, no doubt reaching its apex, at the end of Act II, Scene IV where he adroitly converges the core elements of his character in the role-reversing charade between Falstaff and Prince Hal, each taking turns at playing King Henry and Prince Hal. When Falstaff assumes the role of King Henry, Rainey’s histrionics remind the audience of Falstaff’s carnivalesque aura as he substitutes heraldic insignia for festive tokens, signifying a retreat from social order and into a period of misrule. He clumsily places the flattened cushion over his head to resemble a jeweled crown and uses his “cup of sack” like a royal scepter, making it sway not between political affairs, but passion and pleasure. His hands repeatedly fall to his “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” as he delivers his witticisms, and it is in these instances where Rainey’s hand gestures give his words the gumption to score large shares of laughter from the audience.

But not only does Falstaff’s carnivalesque portrayal of King Henry confer him as Lord of Misrule. This enactment also literalizes Falstaff’s relation to Prince Hal as his comical, yet loving second father. When Prince Hal pretends to be his father and calls Falstaff a “trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack,” Rainey excels in emulating that Falstaffian vulnerability by oscillating between a once jubilant smile now turned dim to furtive, sullen looks at the floor—inevitably inspiring sympathy for that “goodly portly man”.

It is obvious that by Act V the bond between Falstaff and Prince Hal has been disrupted, and director Jack Young’s calculated positioning of Falstaff on stage needs to be lauded, as it brings the foreshadowing of his public rejection in Part Two to the forefront of the play. Once the center of attention in the Eastcheap tavern scenes, Falstaff has now been displaced into the background amidst the sword fighting and politically charged exchanges. Specifically in Scene I, the audience is presented with Falstaff at the far left of the stage—alone—while Prince Hal and his royal posse are huddled on the right side. Rainey gives Falstaff an anxious, hungry-for-acceptance manner as he slowly inches his way across the stage towards Prince Hal and, in an effort to join the conversation, says of Worcester, “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it,” to which he is cut off by Hal who yells, “Peace, chewet, peace!”

My only critique for Rainey is that he could have delivered Falstaff’s most famous lines in a way that touches upon their profundity. That famous soliloquy where Falstaff ponders, “What is honor” was too comedic, in my opinion. One’s manner of deliverance and tone of words have everything to do with altering their meaning, and somewhere, amidst Rainey’s over jubilant execution, the shrewd potency of the soliloquy was lost. Just as he skillfully balanced his character between Lord of Misrule and loving mentor, it would have behooved his performance to temper Falstaff’s humor with a more serious tone when needed, in order to underscore the moments when he speaks of universal truths.

**title for this post comes from Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

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