Shakespeare’s histories have always been better Shakespeare than they have history.
He gets distracted. He fudges details. He lies. And, if the cast and crew are up to the job, audiences never seem to mind.
The cast of Folger’s Henry IV Part 1, going on now until October 13, is more than ready for the challenge. Falstaff is witty and touching. Hal has a noble, sexy sincerity. The king schemes and rages with skill. And don’t sleep on Worcester and Hotspur, either.
As directed by Rosa Joshi, however, this production keeps distracting you from itself. The fight choreography is at first so stylized that it’s tough to take seriously once it turns to blood and steel. The modern, charcoal-grey set (a Shakespeare design choice that at this point feels as old as Shakespeare) is boring until it’s cluttered. And I don’t care for Falstaff with thumping club music — just sayin’.
Still, this flawed basket has quite a few good eggs in it, and you haven’t come for the basket, after all.
Imagine naming a play (never mind two) after a king, and then making a good half of it about the king’s son and his drunk friends. That’s the plan for Henry IV here (“Ivy” to his friends), but Peter Crook has no intention of playing a supporting role in his own story. Sometimes petty and nasty, sometimes august and expansive, he finds lots of shades of “kingly.” As Prince Hal, Avery Whitted makes the transition from carousing rapscallion to high-minded warrior as if, well, as if he were born to it. It’s a jeté of character, and he nails the landing.
And Edward Gero simply has a ball as Falstaff. Gero (who tells BYT this is a bucket-list role for him) has the rare gift of believably appearing to come up with lines you’ve heard multiple times from other actors. He and Whitted both make you wish that Folger was staging Henry IV Part 2 as well.
Just … slightly differently. The problems, which are far from ruinous, are more a matter of temperature than of tone. Would-be hot scenes of high passion come across with a chilly remove, while more temporal ones heat too quickly.
But if you like watching’s Hal’s antics in Eastcheap, you’ll love doing it here. These actors might not make history, but they make history worth watching.