The primal hum of a didgeridoo reverberates across a dim, silent stage. A steady beat joins it, then lyric strings and wailing pipes. The music intensifies, hanging in the air, urgent and breathless. Before even a word is uttered, it is clear that this is not a purely intellectual interpretation of Shakespeare — this is the Shakespeare you feel in your gut.
“Henry IV, Parts I and II,” directed and adapted by Sarah Holdren ’08, is far from typical but is not revolutionary, either. It is fresh: a hybrid of traditional and modern, of spoken dialogue and mesmerizing performance art. The lengthy plays have been abridged and made more accessible for a modern audience, but the language is still authentic and credibly delivered. The versatile cast moves effortlessly between playing instruments and dramatic parts while still infusing a degree of expressiveness into their Elizabethan lines, which suggests hard-earned familiarity. The resulting production succeeds in a tricky endeavor: Without rewriting the Bard, Holdren has made him modern.
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This is no easy feat. The two parts of “Henry IV” comprise the middle plays of Shakespeare’s tetralogy about the English monarchs Richard II (the first play), Henry IV and Henry V (the last play). In the original, each of the two parts is a full-length play in itself. The subject matter of intrigue and rebellion in 15th-century England is somewhat dry, but though the two plays are long when seen together, they are anything but boring.
Innovative visual portrayals of familiar moments break up the hectic pace of the narrative. The robbery which Sir John Falstaff (Alex Borinsky ’08) and his compatriots orchestrate is done in slow motion, each actor hamming it up and, in the process, striking comedic gold. And when the rebel ringleader Hotspur (Dave Thier ’09) ardently urges his compatriots to fight immediately, the other actors slip away as he is left alone on the stage, awash in a spotlight and arguing eloquently in solitude.
The use of sound is striking throughout the play. At one point, as the armies head to war, the stage goes dark. Clanging begins, rising in intensity from all sides, until there is at last a sense of the chaos of battle: confusion and disorientation, brought on by the chilling chimes of metal on metal. The music and use of sound in “Henry IV” do more than complement the moment — they create it. The audience is instinctively in the scene, pulled in and surrounded by the insistent sounds.
Deft though the visual and aural effects are, it is the cast that truly shines. Each actor in “Henry IV” is conspicuously in tune with one another. The wistful, aging Henry IV (Jeremy Funke) is at his best when playing across from his impulsive delinquent son, Prince Hal (Hannah Corrigan ’09). The scenes between the two are poignant since both exhibit an impressive range — Funke’s reserved Henry IV is nonetheless a wellspring of intense emotion; Corrigan’s devil-may-care Prince Hal is desperate for the love of his father. Thier, in his multiple roles, likewise crafts characters both impetuously visionary (Hotspur) and dramatically comic (Poins, Prince Hal’s sidekick). The true powerhouse is Borinsky, whose Falstaff is deliciously lewd, hilarious and riveting. In a play desperate for comic genius, Borinsky delivers.
Still, even such an engaging rendition of “Henry IV” encounters stumbling blocks. Holdren’s abridgment means that the progression of events occurs at a frenzied pace, sometimes with barely a moment to process what is happening. Clarity suffers occasionally in favor of expressiveness when the actors get caught up in their lines. When all is said and done, the modern and traditional elements could be more tightly fused rather than merely juxtaposed. The hybrid Holdren creates, while dazzling, is still somewhat sloppy.
Yet these are quibbles beside the success of “Henry IV.” At its heart, Holdren’s adaptation exemplifies the way Shakespeare should be performed today.