Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 11, 2014

Henry IV, Parts I & II

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 31, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Adapting any of Shakespeare’s history plays so that today’s American audience can understand them can be a daunting task, but Jonathan Epstein has created a lively, energetic version of Henry IV by combining elements of Part I and Part II that capitalize on the bawdy humor of the Bard’s most entertaining comedies. Battles are fought with the sound of aircraft and artillery in the distance; information arrives by cell phone and computer; acrobatic actors swing on ropes and leap to different playing levels; actors sing, dance, and the inevitable sword fight is performed with outstanding vigor.

Epstein has condensed the two plays to focus on Prince Hal, the heir apparent who negotiates his future duties by relating to Henry IV (forcefully played by Epstein with appropriate gravitas) and the secondary father figure of Falstaff who is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most bawdy creations. Every character in the production is perfectly cast, and Malcolm Ingram’s portrayal of Falstaff is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Henry Clark as Prince Hal physically and intellectually inhabits the son, torn between fatherly love and parental rejection. Travis George’s set design provides a dynamic multiple-purpose playing space that complements the story beautifully, and combines Shakespearean and contemporary stagecraft to best advantage.

For anyone who may think that Henry IV may be too historically complicated to understand, this production will change their mind. The adaptation shows the timeliness of Shakespeare and the elements of human desire, greed, and political will that characterize his work. The words—the beautiful words—come alive and the characters touch our sense of what it means to be human. Though Epstein’s adaptation takes some liberties with the original text (for example, he sometimes gives lines to different actors and emphasizes different features of the two original plays), he has clearly demonstrated how Shakespeare’s magic still works, 450 years after the author’s birth. I think the Bard would approve.