Shakespeare Slam

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

It’s been said, not unreasonably, that Henry IV Part 2 is something of a filler story between the clash of titans in Henry IV Part 1 and whatever happens in Henry V. Both of the two plotlines of the first part are carried forward – the continued rebellion against Henry IV and the jollies of Falstaff, with Prince Hal transitioning between the two, but this time the stories are more separate. Hal has made his commitment to kinghood and he and Falstaff barely speak. The rebels have been scattered and their leader is dead, so much of their story involves people standing in corners frustratedly shouting at each other. Consequently, much of the play is taken up with the adventures of Falstaff.

Prince Hal steps up to kingship.

This was not an accident, Falstaff was an extremely popular character when he first appeared on stage and so takes a larger role in the sequel and then got a whole play to himself in the Merry Wives of Windsor. He is a ridiculous unrepentant layabout and Helen Schlesinger again gives it all in gusto. She took advantage of the protuding stage into the audience in full, striding over and taking audience’s cans of beer and swigging them while delivering her monologues about sack. I noted to myself “not a lot happens but it’s great”.

As with Henry IV Part 1, there is a stripped down cast with each playing multiple characters, but in this performance, it had been made more explicit. I watched in absolute amazement as a scene in a brothel with Falstaff and his servant Ancient Pistol emptied out, leaving only his Mistress Doll Tearsheet, who slowly started to remove her garments and wipe the lipstick from her face until King Henry IV was before us. I had not noticed they were the same actor, at all, until that moment. It was probably the most striking part of the play for me.

Doll Tearsheet/Henry IV
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The monologue that Henry IV goes on to deliver mentions his intended promise to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to make up for stealing the crown of Richard II, which I had seen staged seen earlier in the year. It was one of several moments that were essentially fan service for those who’ve seen all the plays. Henry IV then dies and Prince Hal becomes Henry V, to the rapture of his former drinking buddies including Falstaff, who hurtles down to the front of the stage/London to await his coronation. Unfortunately and to Falstaff’s great surprise, King Henry V repudiates him in public and moves on. The actor played it brilliantly, and you could feel his genuine sorrow underneath the bluster.

The play then ended rather abruptly, which I was somewhat surprised for what is, after all, a product of one of our greatest playwrights. I’ve looked at the text and there is an epilogue that I believe was missed out of the performance, perhaps because it references Falstaff appearing in Henry V, which he doesn’t, or perhaps because it was a bit to Elizabethan (asking the audience to pray for the queen). I don’t know, but that might at least solve the mystery.

This was also another play where I took someone along who had never seen a *play* before, never mind Shakespeare, but had absolutely loved it and said that he’d never thought of Shakespeare as something performed in front of drunks cheering you on (they weren’t that drunk). Falstaff for the win!

A scene from Henry IV Part 2 or Falstaff by The Globe Ensemble @ Shakespeare’s Globe

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

2427 Shrew Review_PLAY HUB IMAGE_1440x1368

The Taming of the Shrew is often rightly criticised as being a rampant pile of misogyny. The central plot, in which the strong-willed and fiercely independent Katherina is married off to the controlling and abusive Petruchio so that her younger sister Bianca may marry her lover Lucentio, was horrifying to me when I had to study it in school, and it is horrifying now. The Royal Shakespeare Company tries to adapt this for modern day sensibilities by gender swapping the entire cast and setting the play in a matriarchy, but it doesn’t work.

That’s not to say that they don’t give it a very good go. I saw this as another live broadcast in the cinema, and they put on a behind the scenes featurette while everyone in the theatre is having the interval, which in this performance focussed on the costume and make-up designer discussing her they used make-up and design to project what a society in which women are powerful would look like. So the women wear dresses and the men wear breeches, but the dresses are strong dark colours that are practical but take up a lot of space, some wear swords, and the men wear thin layers covered in flowery print. The men are presented as smaller, and weaker than their female counterparts, which is visually quite striking.

The setting was very well done, I have to give them that.

But, at the end of the day, as The Guardian put it, this is a play about power. You can remove the patriarchy that reigns in this world, and you are still left with a partner with total power, who subjects the main character to capriciousness, gas-lighting, starvation, and in several scenes, physical abuse. With the intended goal of this being funny. And it just isn’t. The result was simply very uncomfortable viewing.

When I first read The Taming of the Shrew at 11, I objected to my teacher about the way that Petruchio treats Bianca. She told me that this would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience, and that we see things differently now. Watching it on stage, and having seen so many productions at the Globe, made me recall this conversation and question: did women not go to these plays? Would there not have been a substantial part of the crowd that, even with more Christian ideas of female servitude than we have time for today, not have found a woman being brutalised on stage somewhat repugnant? Perhaps it would have been funnier if the character was in fact a young boy (women were banned from acting until 1660), but I doubt it.

Haha. So funny.

This is not to say that it isn’t a great production. The matriarchs of the family wear this massive Henry VIII-esque costumes that entirely covered their feet and they’d perfected some particularly kind of walking so that when they moved across stage it looked like they were gliding. Bianco, the younger sister, is continuously silly and hare-brained and it was genuinely an interesting experiment with gender roles to have a man preening with his long hair and pretending not to know how to use a guitar in order to seduce his tutor. Her tutor, Lucentio, is played with a facile enthusiasm in what I described to a friend as “Jen from IT Crowd meets Cameron from Ten Things I Hate About You” The ongoing RSC effort to cast inclusively saw one of the secondary characters using a wheelchair, and another character is deaf.

They just whooshed across the floor.

But you just can’t get away from what this play is, ultimately. Great actors make you believe in what they’re doing, and the RSC has great actors. Petruchia is portrayed at this madcap inventor type who only wants the best for her husband, and at the end of the play the two hook up in what appears to be genuine affection for each other, which I supposed was intended to be a attempt to soften the impact but as far as I am concerned, made it even worse. I’ve said several times in these reviews that seeing a Shakespeare play performed really brings to life what was always intended to be a live performance rather than words on a page, but watching Katherina beg for food while the servants laughed at her inversely made it that much harder to consume. I do not think that Shakespeare had anything to be proud of in this play.

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Shakespeare Slam: Henry IV Part 1 – Hotspur

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. Henry IV Part 1, or “Hotspur” as they subtitled it, is one of the most popular plays in Shakespeare’s canon, which was good to see after one of the least popular. The story of a rebellion against King Henry IV by the tempestuous Sir Henry Percy leading […]

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Shakespeare Slam: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

July 21, 2019

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is another one of the Shakespeare plays where, when I told people I was going to see it, largely responded with, “Shakespeare wrote that? I’ve never heard of it?!” The story of a royal prince who is shipwrecked and is left to believe […]

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Shakespeare Slam – The Merry Wives of Windsor

February 1, 2019

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. Merry Wives of Windsor was the first Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered that made no pretence to be literature, and is not treated as such by teachers and people who would make me study what are living, breathing texts. Allegedly it was written at the behest of Elizabeth I, who loved the character of Falstaff […]

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Shakespeare Slam

February 1, 2019

On the 5th November, 2018, I posted to Facebook: “So of Shakespeare’s plays, I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream (aged 11), Macbeth (aged 15) and Hamlet (aged 16, 25, 26, 27, 29 (twice) – I’m really into Hamlet), and I feel like I am missing out on lots of culture other than The Lion […]

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Shakespeare Slam – King Lear

November 28, 2018

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. Well, that was…intense. Ian McKellen was asked by the Chicester Festival Theatre, where he started his professional career many decades ago, if he would star in a play of his choosing, and he felt that he would like to “have a another crack at King Lear”. […]

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