Coming back to Shakespeare after some time away can be somewhat daunting. It definitely takes some cultural recalibrating to wrap your head around the Elizabethan mindset, the cultural references, and especially the archaic language. Who but a scholar could be expected to know what a younker is — or an estridge, or a gurnet, or a culverin? But after some settling in, you do recalibrate and everything begins to make more sense. Comprehension increases if the words are spoken by talented actors who communicate as much through their personae as through their words. And that is precisely what the classic theater specialists at Antaeus deliver with their staging of “Henry IV (Part I)” in their North Hollywood space.
As is typical for Antaeus, the play is double cast. Some nights have one cast, some another; and yet others are a mashup of the two casts. But with one director, Michael Murray, and a reliably high standard for the actors, it is likely that the overall experience will be quite comparable no matter which cast you see. I will note, however, that in the cast I saw (the “Quicklys”) the actors’ accents were all over the place, and this took some getting used to. Some put on British accents, some applied American accents with British or Welsh overlays, while others used strictly American accents. Perhaps one could say that this polyglot approach mirrors the many regional accents of Great Britain, but it was distracting nonetheless.
Many agree that “Henry IV” is the most accessible of Shakespeare’s history plays, somehow managing to weave together a story of impending warfare and intergenerational conflict, all wrapped up in the guise of a bawdy comedy. The main characters frame the story: In one corner we have King Henry (a usurper) and his son Hal, Prince of Wales; in the other there is Earl Mortimer (the nominated King) and his son Henry Percy, known as Hotspur for his courage and impetuousness. These are all actual historic figures. Shakespeare’s genius invention was the literally larger-than-life character of Sir John Falstaff, an old, corrupt and grossly obese aide to the King, who almost singlehandedly carries the comedic aspects of the play.
In the Quickly cast, Falstaff is played by Stephen Caffrey, and he is nothing less than sensational in offering up a portrait of a hard-drinking buffoon who is as proud and witty as he is bombastic and boastful. With his shirt and pants stuffed full of padding, Caffrey surely looks the part of a man “as fat as butter.” But it is his insouciant, devil-may-care attitude that wins us over as he delivers some of Shakespeare’s most cutting comebacks. In one scene, he rattles off a string of insults that remind us how it should be done: “Why, thou claybrained guts, nott-pated fool, greasy tallow keech… you starveling, you elf-skin, you bull’s pizzle….” What a contrast to today’s triumvirate of harshest, oft-encountered imprecations: racist, homophobe, sexist.
Of the other actors, notable is the stately dignity and imperiousness of Joel Swetow as King Henry, the playfulness and good humor of Ramon de Ocampo as Prince Hal, and the grim purposefulness of Bo Foxworth as Worcester. Daniel Bess as Hotspur was problematic for me. With his flat Middle American accent and relentlessly hotheaded demeanor, he seemed more like a greenhorn gangster from St. Louis than a Northumberland Prince. However, he redeems himself somewhat with his skillful and realistically choreographed swordfight with Prince Hal at the end.
While the set is minimal and the costuming takes the form of dark modern suits and plain dresses, there is certainly enough in the drama to keep us entertained. With nefarious plotters, the swordfights and especially the antics of Falstaff, Henry IV is a must-see for Shakespeare fans as well as those who simply appreciate the art of acting and want to see one of this stage season’s most titanic performances.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
“Henry IV” continues through May 3 at the Antaeus Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Call (818) 506-1983, or visit www.Antaeus.org.