THEATER: “Henry IV, Parts I & II” (Condensed) @ Shakespeare & Co. [Berkshire on Stage]
Theater review by Gail M. Burns
Shakespeare’s two history plays purporting to be about King Henry IV of England (1367-1413 CE) are actually about the coming of age of his son, the future King Henry V (1386-1422 CE). They form the center of the Bard’s tetralogy which begins with Richard II and ends with Henry V, although some will argue that Henry VI, Parts I, II and III are also a part of what becomes then a seven-play cycle. All of this was quite recent history for Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE) and these plays were not only very popular entertainment, but also formed the Tudor equivalent of the required high school course in American History we are familiar with today. At a time when most people were illiterate and few had any formal schooling, they could learn the royally sanctioned history of their land at the theater while laughing at Sir John Falstaff and his merry band of thieves and whores.
Performed in their entirety, Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II occupy the stage for a good seven hours. Hard to perform apart contextually, they are impossibly expensive and time consuming for a modern company to perform together. Starting off last year with a production of Richard II, Shakespeare & Company wanted to continue on with the history plays, and so commissioned actor/director Jonathan Epstein to condense Henry IV into one play. The resulting work runs a solid three hours, and when you add in the much-needed 20-minute intermission you walk out of the theater about three and a half hours after you entered. Thankfully the evening performances start at 7:30, not 8pm.
Epstein has cut much of the history in favor of the excellent comedy in the plays, but sadly that renders the politics and battles that remain even harder for the average audience member to understand. Adding to that muddle, just about every significant political player is named Henry (and sometimes called Harry or Hal), which is neither Epstein nor Shakespeare’s fault, that’s just history. For the sake of clarity in this review we will refer to them as Henry IV, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V), Hotspur (Henry Percy), and Percy (Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland).