Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honor? A word...Air.
V. 1. 131-136
The droll roguery of Falstaff’s “catechism” makes these some of the funniest lines given to one of Shakespeare’s great comic creations, yet they are not entirely mirthful, nor is he totally a clown. Earlier in the scene, Prince Hal reminds Falstaff, who has expressed misgivings about the coming battle, “thou owest God a death.” Falstaff replies, “’Tis not due yet.”
His attitude stands in stark contrast to the obsession the rebel Henry “Hotspur” Percy has with his personal honor and reputation, although he lives in a castle with a high-spirited, loving and lovely wife, and is perfectly free to ride and hunt all day, and drink all night, if that is his pleasure. The wonderfully staged, contrasting tableaux of the flea-bitten Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap, and Glendower’s castle in Wales, illustrate worlds far apart in luxury and privilege, and yet it is Falstaff who trips his guts nimbly off to safety, leaving honor behind, and Percy who, dying, gasps, “I better brook the loss of bitter life/Than those proud titles thou hast won of me./They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.”
Shakespeare wrote this history not least in his role as apologist to the house of Tudor, of which Elizabeth I was last of the line. Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399 could be viewed as the opening act of the Wars of the Roses, which do not conclude until we meet Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry of Richmond, on Bosworth Field at the conclusion of Richard III, historically in 1485. By then, the noble houses of England have been so thoroughly drained of male blood that Richmond, best of the Lancastrian claimants and eventually Henry VII, was a distant cousin to anyone of genuine royal connection. So the themes of honor, what it is and what it is really worth, and the ultimate cost of ambition are not academic ones for the Elizabethans.
Jonathan Daly’s Falstaff literally fleshes out the one side of these themes magnificently, with his comically roaring speech and appetites. His costume, (the always excellent work of longtime GRSF costume designer Meg Weedon) is a feat of engineering, making the trim Daly appear obese, and facilitating a quite balletic performance as the aging fat man who just gets around on his worn-out joints. Daly has illustrated this ability to immerse himself physically into his roles in the past, notably as the hunchbacked, lame, Richard III. It is a wonder how a man can move so gracefully while mimicking handicap.
The role of Falstaff is, of course, a plum from whose performance any apprentice easily draw laughs, but Daly teases every last ounce of juice from the part, as usual. Even those who know it well will be amazed at the richness, nuance, and surprise his portrayal achieves, but then, those who know Daly’s work will not be surprised.
On the other side, the Hotspur and Kate (Lady Percy) of Andrew Carlson and Kate Fonville do excellent work in establishing Percy’s human dimension, easily lost amid the bluster typical of the role. Their first scene of parting, which can easily read brusque and peevish, achieves a sort of tenderness, with Hotspur “a-horseback” given a bawdy double meaning not evident in the text, but most effective and typical of Paul Barnes’s imaginative direction. To soften his leaving, he comes back to her and says, echoing the sweet lines of the book of Ruth, “Whither I go, thither shall you go too.” The scene establishes a sense of something to lose, and lends a poignancy to the one of Hotspur’s death which otherwise might be lost.
It would be easy for Chris Sheard’s Prince Hal to get caught up in the wash and sheer immensity of Daly’s Falstaff, but he holds his end up very well in the circling duel of wit, bombast, and insult, the success of his performance contributing to Daly’s, and without which, the wonderful choreography of the Boar’s Head scenes could not work. Their careful composition, and the symmetrical one at Glendower’s castle are typical of Barnes’ work, always constructed with a painter’s eye. Strangely, the rudimentary GRSF set contributes much to the effect, and it would be a shame not to mention how effective these Henry IV sets are in so ingeniously depicting such a wide variety of locations and actions. (The mullioned window of the Boar’s Head Tavern projected on the scrim was a particularly effective, simple stroke.)
A good Shakespearian production is always a celebration of English, our mother tongue, in its diverse and sometimes perverse beauty, cobbled together as it is from its Romance and Germanic roots. The addition in this play of Welsh, whose eerie sweetness was the more obvious for our ignorance of its content in Stephanie Lambourn’s singing, added an unexpected and delightful dimension to this typically brilliant GRSF production.