- Henry IV, Part One
This year's production of I Henry IV at the Stratford Festival raised one question again and again: why? Five years after a unanimously acclaimed production of both parts of Henry IV together with Henry V, artistic director Richard Monette opted to mount just one part. Dana Osborne's design was quite traditional: costumes were lighter versions of medieval clothing and armor, and the long thrust stage at the Tom Patterson theatre was very sparsely dressed. The most striking feature of the production, and presumably the reason for its staging, was Richard Monette's decision to play the comedy to the hilt. As a director, Monette has a reputation for leaning heavily on comedic elements; his favorite staging device, the sound of a caterwauling cat, made its obligatory appearance. For the most part, the end result was rather like James Blendick's Falstaff: cuddly, safe, and with a tendency to rely on gags rather than to trust the potential of the dialogue. The contrast between the formal, almost hieratic "high" scenes in the King's council and the "low" scenes in Eastcheap was strongly marked; in some scenes, however, the outright comedy provoked a strong sense of discomfort.
A case in point was the decision to play Hotspur as a frat boy. Adam O'Byrne came across as the class clown, at home on the football field but out of depth on the battlefield, and certainly out of place in Monette's grimly serious scenes at court. Hotspur's short temper was in evidence, but his charm and wit were downplayed. As a result, the rebel forces hardly seemed a credible threat, draining tension from the battle scenes, and the appeal of Hotspur's romantic chivalry was lost. Romance also suffered in the scenes between O' Byrne and Jennifer Mawhinney's Kate. Her appeal to him in 2.3 was played as an abridged version of The Taming of the Shrew, with Lady Percy striking her husband and twisting his [End Page 116] little finger only to be thrown over his shoulder. As a result, his response to her entreaties—"Love? I love thee not"—had no redeeming irony. Rather than being a comment on the brutal nature of politics and war, it was simply brutal.
The staging at the Tom Patterson Theatre magnified the faults of the production. While the stage is smaller than the Festival Theatre, the audience is closer. As a result, battle scenes—already deprived of dramatic conflict between Hotspur and Snelgrove's bland Hal—lost their edge. Moreover, Monette seemed unsure how to accommodate the sight-lines of the playing space. Actors were encouraged to play out to the audience, diminishing the personal interaction between characters; tense scenes of argument and discussion become set pieces of oratory, as actors turned to make sure every part of the audience was included. It is perhaps appropriate that, in a play with unsure direction, the most effective moment—the tearing in half of Glendower's wall-to-wall map of Great Britain during a scene change—was borrowed from the 2001 production, directed by Scott Wentworth, whose Henry IV was the strongest stage presence in this season's version. Unlike O' Byrne or Snelgrove, Wentworth was never obliged to change dramatic idiom, and thus was able to maintain an air of patrician gravitas. It is striking that in a production that stressed comedy, the actor playing the most serious role seemed the least out of place.