Ruben Szuchmacher and the Elkafka Espacaio Teatral’s Argentinean production of 2 Henry IV had a hard act to follow. The performance of 1 Henry IV by the Compania Nacional de Teatro Mexico created a brimming vivacity that heartily engaged cast and audience in an increasing solidarity of purpose and action, and elicited, at both shows, no less than four curtain calls.
So when Part Two of the history of Prince Hal and Plump Jack hit the stage with a the pre-intermission action bent on delivering the Boar’s Head gang in full and drunken depravity, some air came out of the balloon. The staggering and clown-suited Falstaff was no longer fun and lovable, but merely a loser. Prince Hal’s time with the gang became less than small beer, more shameful, and all in all simply ridiculous. Indeed, the first half played not as a pendulous competition between the gravity of state politics and the competing warmth (along with politics) of local tavern life, but merely as farce.
There was, however, a first half moment that did set the stage for other things to come. When King Henry IV made his brief first-half appearance, weak with insomnia and fretting over past actions, we saw the consequences of histories and behaviors on nations and their legacies. Opportunism kinged for Henry Bolingbroke had led to the destabilized throne and nation, a problem difficult to set right again.
After the intermission, the tone changed dramatically, and now we were, more than less, drawn into the high stakes at hand. The Archbishop and the rebels enter into a compact of surrender with the Prince’s deadly serious brother John of Lancaster, only to have him immediately renege on the terms of surrender by arresting the Archbishop and the rest of the rebel leadership. King Henry collapses at the news of victory, only to have his crown temporarily stolen by the ambitious and unready Hal. Henry’s stern rebuke and worry over Hal’s future leadership becomes most serious, and the Prince’s promise for reform met with all due skepticism.
But, in the end, the gravity wins out: Hal does appear reformed and becomes united strongly with Prince John and the Chief Justice. There is some shifting of high and low in these moments, but the old gang’s viability in the coming world is largely repelled.
The rejection of Falstaff appears, here, not just good politics, but a generally good and necessary idea, and the new and more martial future of Hal aligned with his always-uniformed brother is seen as the right and only move to make. The disgusting delinquency of the many—see Shallow and Silence, all the everyday troops, as well as the gang, and maybe us, too–will be reformed by the passionate intensity of the few.
As a history lesson, it is one that we may well find in the midst of Shakespeare’s work, but if this production took some of the joy of life out of the Falstaffian legend, it did serve to remind us, quite starkly, that a shift to the liberal and festive side of the ledger has historically often received its corrective by an excess of powerful regimentation on the other. And those in power, whether in medieval England or modern Argentina, may or may not be well-suited to find or establish any domain other than the one that fully extends their own version of the haves and have nots, the free and the chained, those who make the history books or those, who like Falstaff, we attempt to disappear.
Dr. David Ruiter
Associate Professor of English
University of Texas at El Paso