A Falstaffian Fiesta at the speed of Fun.
If ever there were an opportunity to enjoy what fun this richest of plays has to offer, La Compañia Nacional de Teatro from Mexico City is here in London to show us how. I can’t say when last I spent 2 and a half hours with my face so often in the goofiest of grins, eating up every morsel of this fast, lean, open-hearted effort.
A disciplined eight actors play some 20 roles to the dynamically incorporated music of four fabulous musicians as they romp and roll their way through the heights and depths of this famous coming-of-age story. If you think I praise lightly, consider it was only a year ago I played Hal in both parts of Henry IV, and this play was already near and dear to my heart before that unforgettable double production. After that experience, I felt that especially this first Henry IV play of the two had lodged itself in a private chapter of my heart, and that I would protect its image against feckless suitors of all shapes and sizes.
As promised, Mexican Falstaff lived up to the hype. Between the tequila-slugging tavern sequences and the sharpest-tongued Hotspur one could imagine, I barely needed to squint to imagine Shakespeare actually intending this English history play for a Spanish speaking company. It seemed to fit in their quivers like the most native of Mexican tales, woven deeply and colorfully around archetypes that have expanded and fermented through centuries of story telling.
Imagine the famed Globe stage extending down both stage left and right by long platforms that go 8-10 feet into the yard. On the end of each plank is a trap for actors to enter as if from the bowels of a ship. Each of these platforms is continued onto the stage by a dozen or so smaller platforms of different dimensions that are constantly shifted throughout the performance to provide levels befitting the throne room, tavern, or battlefield. These eight sterling actors and their director (the accomplished Hugo Arrevillaga), flexed some real ensemble muscle in making the transitions fun and lively affairs; moving to the beat of the music, letting the text bleed in on either end, or really just letting their enjoyment show among each other in the infectious spirit of play. The entire evening revealed this palpable energy, but the movements of these platforms betrayed to us how honest this spirit of fun actually was.
The glorious five minute curtain call
As for the famous characterizations, it has been well reported that this play is based on an interlocking quartet of larger-than-life personas. We first have King Henry, who in this production was treated more Epic Theatre than troubled dad with a kingdom on his shoulders. The acting style of the portrayal struck me as something more related to a Japanese Noh drama – ruled with gestus and expression, enrobed in an abstract gown of what looked like golden tongues of fabric, and crowned with a tall, whimsical golden sculpture that looked like something out of a C. S. Lewis novel. Indeed, this Enrique IV wielded a sceptre more like a fabled wizard than a king. And a searching, repetitive and pensive yet troubled ostinato pattern on the marimba that sounded whenever he spoke cemented the interpretation as something far more mythic than real. I was confused by this interpretation at first, but it quickly grew on me. The production was simply allowing this historical figure its poetic space in an expansively beautiful way. It did mean the famous scene with Hal and his dad lacked real-world stakes, which to me as a lover of this scene was an unfortunate sacrifice. One of the strengths of this scene as written is the accessible father/son drama that has a familiar domestic dynamic but with global implications. And admittedly, I am not a native Spanish speaker. However, I give credit to the team for making a strong choice with the King and going all the way with it.
Hal, the boy who would be king, came across as the cock-sure loner he so often seems. The performance was inspired and the actor clearly very skilled, but ultimately I didn’t gain much new insight from this confident portrayal. It reminded me how hard it is to make us care for Hal – a man who, unlike Falstaff, has never needed love and friendship to survive. Consequently his biting comments to Falstaff (“I do, I will,” to name one of the more famous), came across as appropriately disingenuous not because he knows what is to come, but instead merely because this Hal apparently doesn’t yet know how to empathize with others. But hey – I’ve played the role, and if you’re an actor, you might be justified in finding me implacable on the subject. Still, I contend that this role is much more difficult than it is demanding. All of us who know the story well have opinions of this character. Add to this that his arrogance, written into the play so clearly, erodes at his likability almost from the very start. It is a deck stacked against any actor, and one I wrestled with without definitely winning the match.
But this is Falstaff’s play, and never was this more clear. The belly-first performer glowed under the audience’s cheerful gaze, playing out to us whenever possible. This I’m sure will invite criticism from people who want a more down-to-earth, all-to-vulnerable Falstaff. But especially in the Globe, with audience on almost all sides, we crave the direct address, the overt fat jokes, and the physical humor. And in this production, the audience was a real and true extension of tavern life. There we were, slinging back pints with Peto and Bardolph and the rest, which meant that landing the punchlines on the groundlings seemed not only the most consistent choice but was exactly what we wanted. This production proved that direct address is the opposite of a break from reality – it is the reality. The actors, conscious of our following every move, played up the banter because they legitimately were enjoying it. And that, they taught me, is the point after all.
The crown jewel of this audience-inclusive concept came in the play-acting tavern scene when Falstaff and Hal take turns imitating the king. The two actors were on either stage extension, fully in the round and a great distance from each other. As they made their caricatures, the stakes of the one-upsmanship (i.e. who will give a funnier performance) were made real and meaningful sport as the actors competed for laughs from the audience. This enlarged the scene to great effect, and took the pressure off the other tavern residents to sell how funny they were – we knew very well what was funny and how very much. It was an emblematic scene in a production that so convincingly demonstrated the currency this Falstaff/Hal relationship trades on: ‘you may be the Prince of Wales, but I’m funnier. And no matter who you are or are going to be, the people love me. Just try to take that away from me.’ It’s hard to imagine the scene working better.
As for Hotspur, in a play in which everyone is moving and speaking very quickly, Hotspur has to be even faster on the trigger. This performance accepted the challenge and surpassed it. I was amazed at how sharp and musical the language was flowing out from this talented young actor – trippingly and clear as day, even for someone like me with a decidedly so-so grasp on Spanish. His speed of tongue played directly into the comedy built into the role, matching a sharp wit to his sharp tongue, leaving everyone else from Kate to Worcester to Northumberland to hastily deal with his rapidity of will, mind, and soul. The famous Kate/Hotspur scene was given an enormous lift due to this giddy-paced energy, and pulled all the laughs a fan of the scene could wish for. I find American actors make a great deal out of the melodrama between Kate and Hotspur. I cannot say that I am not one of these as a great lover of all the colors of this marriage, and I was a tad disappointed that this production did not stop to smell the roses of that depth or variety. But the benefits of rushing to get out of the house were many. Kate had to grasp at straws, shooting from the hip with all of the tactics she could muster, revealing the dire need for love and honest companionship she surely feels with palpable immediacy. The result was an instinctual comic feel that left us breathless.
One of the great joys of this Enrique IV was the extent to which everyone understood this imperative of speed. From the urchin Poins to the Hostess, all of the secondary characters came to life under the gun of this quick, ever-changing world. They switched characters and scenic configurations with this same energy, contributing to a sense throughout the production that there was an exorable drive toward the battle, that Hal did not have much time to clean up his act, and that Falstaff and the King had to act impulsively to ensure their own survival.
I must close with a note about the fabulous, supremely integrated music. The incredible ensemble of four players in the gallery variously played trumpet, trombone, tuba, clarinet, bass clarinet, marimba, nosiemakers, and a battery of percussion from timbales to an enormous bass drum. It was obvious this large score was developed collaboratively, in rehearsal, and with great sensitivity to the story, the actors, and their nuanced performances. Dueling brass playing brought a distinctively Mexican flavor to this story, increasing my feeling that the play was a perfect fit for this company and culture. But this is solely the success of the composer and players – not of Mr. Shakespeare, who of course could never have dreamed of this incredibly fortuitous match.
The most inspired moments of synergy between music and text, ones that I will never ever forget, involved Falstaff moving through the yard or lumbering on from the tiring house to the puttering bass lines of the tuba. If there ever were a marriage of character and instrument, this was certainly it. The sound of the tuba seemed to come right out of Falstaff’s own rotundity, making him smile and gawk and swerve his belly to and fro, dancing to the beat as a celebratory state of being, and acting as a living example of the sheer pleasure of being larger than life – a life grossly enjoyed and blissfully expressed.