'King Henry IV' emerges as story for our time in new adaptation


LENOX -- It began as a glimmer of an idea three summers ago in a dressing room at Shakespeare & Company during the run of "As You Like It."

"I just looked around at the people in the dressing room -- Johnny Lee (Davenport), Malcolm (Ingram) and a few others. I began thinking what we could do together," actor-director Jonathan Epstein said during an interview in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre lobby on the Shakespeare & Company campus.

His mind began fixing on the two separate parts of Shakespeare's "King Henry IV."

Epstein put together what he calls a 55-minute "guerrilla" "Henry IV, Part I" -- rough, unplugged, freewheeling.

From guerrilla projects, big ideas solidify.

Epstein became determined to find a way to create from "King Henry IV, Part I" and "King Henry IV, Part II" "one coherent story that could be told in under three hours," he said.

It's taken Epstein the better part of two years. The result, "King Henry IV, Parts I & II," opens at 7 tonight in the Tina Packer Playhouse, where the production -- with a veteran cast that includes, among others, Ingram, Davenport, Kevin Coleman, Robert Lohbauer, and Epstein's wife, Ariel Bock -- has been previewing since Saturday. It is scheduled to run through Aug. 31 in repertory with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged."

Epstein -- who also has directed this production and plays King Henry IV -- is careful to call this an "adaptation." He hasn't added any text but he has, he says, reassigned lines from one character to another and he has made some subsidiary characters more prominent while diminishing others.

To ease the burden of both playing King Henry and directing, Epstein has refashioned the role to that of a major supporting role, the "setting," he says.

"If this were about Henry, then it would be much harder to both direct and act," Epstein said. "Here, I've made Falstaff (Ingram), Prince Hal (Henry Clarke, another company veteran) and Hotspur (Adam Venable) more important."

The "Henry IV" plays chronicle the profligate adventures of Henry's heir apparent, his son, Prince Hal, who has rejected his father's court in exchange for a walk on the wild side with his drinking buddy, Falstaff, until Hal's bitter enemy, Hotspur, forms an alliance with a group of lords and mounts a rebellion against King Henry, forcing Hal into making a crucial decision.

"In Falstaff's company," Clarke said, joining Epstein and Ingram for the interview, "Hal feels himself. In Henry's company, he feels his father's son."

"Falstaff's relationship with Hal is important," Ingram said.

"He's a huge contrast from Henry. He's Hal's other father. He represents fun, anarchy, irresponsibility. He's a big child."

"There's a lot of adoration in that relationship," Epstein said, until, he noted, Hal becomes "the guy" as he moves toward taking up the mantle of leadership and responsibility.

"They grow away from each other," Epstein said, "in a gentle way, poignant rather than brutal.

"I think there is a tremendous amount of longing for other, reaching for other."

"Hal's speech in which he rejects Falstaff is the saddest," Clarke said.

For Epstein, Henry is the consummate politician.

"He is the most manipulative of Shakespeare's kings," Epstein said, "even more than Richard III."

Epstein has set his adaptation in the London of Shakespeare's era and the London of today.

"We're not anchored in any time," Epstein said. "I think audiences will be willing to be detached from a fixed time."

He's done that to bridge a gap; for the sake of relevancy, commonality, universality; to make clearer why these infrequently produced plays -- both parts of "King Henry IV," "King Henry V" and the three parts of "King Henry VI" -- matter.

"The real hero of ‘King Henry IV,' of all of Shakespeare's history plays, in fact, is England," Epstein says, "the growth and development of England but that doesn't work for us."

In a broader philosophical sense, "the histories tell us something about the private individual that the (made-up) stories never will," Epstein says.

"Every generation has to tell and retell (the) story. It's about context, making time to put ourselves in a context. The histories do that and ‘King Henry IV, Parts I & II' does it with humor and excitement."


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