“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”

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Over in Boston right now The Actors’ Shakespeare Project theatre company is putting the final touches to its new production of ‘Henry IV’ parts 1 and 2 – watch the trailer above for a taste of what’s to come. To help contextualize the goings-on in these plays for its audience the company has sensibly decided to top and tail their shows with snippets from ‘Richard II’ and ‘Henry V’. This is a great idea as it helps audiences get a feel for what is past, and also for what’s to come. At the end of ‘Richard II’, the usurping Henry Bolingbroke, who has just become king, shows concern for the whereabouts of his wayward son Hal: “Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son? […]Enquire at London ‘mongst the taverns there”. Henry is of course spot on – Hal spends most of ‘Henry IV’ part I making merry with his ‘loose companions’ in the Boar’s Head, receiving a very different (but no less important) sort of education from the one his father had envisaged for him. Hal’s first soliloquy however highlights his awareness of what his future holds – and shows him (to use a modern term) to be very media-savvy – he is in fact his own best spin-doctor:

“So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes”

Essentially Shakespeare is giving us here the ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’. We can see the calculating strategist who will one day lead his soldiers to a famous victory against the French, as dramatized in ‘Henry V’. It is also in ‘Henry V’ that we hear of Falstaff’s death – Shakespeare can’t resist casting his eye over his shoulder for one last glance at this iconic Lord of Misrule whose role has been to amuse and move audiences in equal measure. The Hostess (formerly Mistress Quickly) recounts how:

“A parted ev’n just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o’th’tide – for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was but one way”.

The plot and characters of the ‘Henry IV’ plays evidently spill out across a number of works – so ‘joining up the dots’ makes a lot of sense when it comes to creating a rounded and coherent theatrical experience for spectators.

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s idea of ‘cutting and pasting’ lines from other Histories has appealed to directors in this country too. When making his film of ‘Henry V’ Kenneth Branagh incorporated a few speeches from ‘Henry IV’, showing Falstaff in all his glory, to help flesh out the Hostess’s news of his death. Some years later Greg Doran added scenes from ‘Henry IV’ into his musical adaptation of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for the RSC. But perhaps my favourite borrowing of recent years came at the end of Michael Boyd’s RSC production of ‘Henry VI’ part III. After the final words of the play had been spoken, Richard Duke of Gloucester (all dressed in black) sat centre stage cradling the infant prince. Lifting his eyes from the child to the auditorium he whispered “Now…..”. Black Out. What a way to whet an audiences’ appetite for the opening lines of ‘Richard III’ which could be seen the following night – “Now…is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York”.

If you are lucky enough to be in or around the Boston area over the next couple of months, the ‘Coveted Crown’ will be playing at Midway Studios from 29th September – 21st November. Catch it if you can. To find out more about this company’s inspiring work visit http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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