Thursday, August 8, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: For King and Country-stage combat is always a highlight of Pac Rep''s Shakespeare productions.
This Saturday, Carmel''s Pacific Repertory Theater opens Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare''s retelling of the early years of Britain''s Wars of the Roses. Next week Pac Rep opens Henry IV Part 2, with Henry V following hard on its heels, concluding the story of the 15th-century House of Lancaster with the Bard''s paean to England''s "most perfect king."
Once these three plays are up and running, Pac Rep will be half-way through its ambitious four-year project of mounting all 10 of Shakespeare''s histories in chronological order. And so far as artistic director Stephen Moorer knows, his company is the first to put on the complete cycle.
England''s Royal Shakespeare Company presents a partial cycle once a decade or so, and this year, for the first time, is mounting all eight of the long-accepted histories in one season. And the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, is just concluding a three-year cycle of those eight plays. But neither of them have put on Edward III, which Pac Rep presented last summer-just months after it was accepted into the official canon. And only Pac Rep has tackled Thomas of Woodstock, a play that bridges the years between Edward III and Richard II, and appears to be Shakespeare''s work, but has not been formally accepted as such. (I was one of the few local critics who adored that high-energy, hilarious production last summer.)
But besides the artistic brownie points, why, in these times of dwindling audiences and growing financial constraints, do the histories at all? It''s a lot easier to draw a crowd with A Midsummer Night''s Dream than a play about the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster.
"It''s a personal choice," Moorer says. "I find the histories an incredible body of work that needs and deserves to be done. There''s never a time when war isn''t on someone''s mind, and the way the histories deal with the horrors of war, as well as with patriotic fervor and the defense of king and country resonate quite strongly, particularly today."
Both parts of Henry IV tell the story of England''s first Lancaster ruler as he struggles to leave his son, Prince Hal, a united kingdom. Hal, for his part, wavers between the debauched tavern world of his lusty friend Falstaff, and the responsibilities of the royal crown he must one day wear.
In Henry V, Hal makes his choice, leaving Falstaff and crew behind as he battles the French (in the Hundred Years'' War) and his English rivals (in the Wars of the Roses) to become the most revered king in British history. All three plays take place during the two first decades of the 15th century.
The "history" label might scare some people away, but in fact these plays are among the Bard''s most accessible. They have straight-forward story lines, and they''re filled with pageantry, battle scenes, bawdy comic relief, romantic interludes, and two of Shakespeare''s strongest characters: Henry V himself, and John Falstaff, king of the drunkards, master of the one-liner, the Bard''s quintessential tragicomic anti-hero.
"Each of these plays has a family story going on," Moorer says. "They''re real soap operas-British history is really just a couple of wild families fighting for the crown."
The central plot element of Prince Hal''s struggle between past and future convinced Moorer to set all three plays in a dual time period, moving back and forth between Elizabethan times and today. He tried that gambit in his 1996 production of Henry IV Part 1, and audience reaction was favorable. Now he''s doing it in all three plays. It makes sense for the script, he believes. "Especially in Henry IV, we have two distinct stories going on," he explains. "Hal travels between these two different and very real worlds-the Elizabethan world, represented by Falstaff, who does not want to move into the future; and his father, who tries to pull him into adulthood and his own future."
Pac Rep''s productions are known for their exciting, almost balletic stage combat, choreographed by John Farmanesh- Bocca. Younger audience members who have trouble following some of the dialogue invariably wake up when the swords being to clank. And there will be plenty of clanking in this summer''s three plays, along with machine-gun fire and semi-automatic weapons.
But even with all the swash and buckle, Shakespeare managed to convey the horrors of war. One of the most poignant scenes in Henry V occurs when the retreating French armies slaughter a tent-full of unarmed boy servants, a deed that inspires Henry''s own bloody revenge.
Moorer says there is a message in these plays for post-9/11 audiences.
In one ironic portent of the future, Henry IV Part 1 opens with the king despairing that he''s not lived up to his pledge to join the Crusades and fight the infidels in Jerusalem.
"Henry uses his war in the Middle East as a way of keeping his own people from rising up against him, and to boost his own popularity," Moorer says. "Are there parallels to Bush? Are we going to attack Saddam around election time?"
All three productions will be performed indoors, on the same Golden Bough set. Look for multi-level circular staircases sure to add danger, hopefully unintended, to the battle scenes. The large casts are headed by real-life soap opera star James Kiberd as Henry IV, John Farmanesh-Bocca as Prince Hal and then Henry V, and John Rousseau as the beloved blowhard Falstaff.