Henry IV; directed by Daniel Sullivan for The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, LA, California, USA. June 3, 2018.
Reviewed by Justin B. Hopkins, Franklin and Marshall College
I expected Tom Hanks to be good. After all, he has won a couple of Academy Awards, and he did receive complimentary reviews for his Broadway debut. Supported by veteran Shakespeare director Daniel Sullivan, I suspected Hanks would be a solid Falstaff—maybe even a strong one.
I underestimated him.
I attended the very first public, preview performance of Henry IV, and Hanks is simply superb. Striding on a stage bare but for a chair, a table, and a cup, Hanks nods and waves a greeting at the gathering audience before sitting, sipping from the cup with a sigh of appreciation, then slamming said cup on the table and launching into song, an adaptation of Justice Silence’s ditty: “Do nothing but eat and make good cheer” (5.3.16). As the rest of the cast joins and the play proper starts, Hanks surreptitiously slinks off to a side bench, where he waits for King Henry to finish his expositional speech. While Henry complains about Prince Hal’s “riot and dishonour” (1.1.84), Falstaff furrows his brow, purses his lips, and inspects his fingernails nonchalantly. Hardly stealing focus, still it is the kind of attention to detail even in the background that delights.
I remember watching an interview with Hanks, years ago, during which he was asked what ambitions he had left, having already achieved so much. He said he hoped to act more on stage, and to sing, and to do some Shakespeare. Here he’s managed all three in three minutes, and managed it masterfully to boot.
And as he’s begun, so he continues, crafting a marvelous portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s more challenging characters. Hanks nearly perfectly blends broad physical comedy with sharp verbal humor, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with his film work. Watch how, called by Hal, Hanks struggles to get off his back, his bulging belly wobbling precariously, and hear his cheerful sarcasm as he informs the prince, “grace, thou wilt have none” (1.2.15). What does surprise me, though perhaps it shouldn’t, is Hanks’ careful service to the poetry of the part. Note his subtle marking of the consonants as he invokes “our mistress the moon” (1.2.25)—he knows his alliteration, but he won’t puff it up any more than necessary. This discipline is as impressive, or more so, than his capacity for blustery ham.
That capacity really is immense—Hanks does not hesitate to cut loose in performative fireworks. Not halfway through Part 1, he works himself into a spitting frenzy insulting Hal, building to a full out bellow of “bull’s pizzle” (2.5.227), twice, because, I suspect, the prince didn’t pick up his cue quite quickly enough. Steady on, sir, I thought to myself, even as I guffawed—you can’t keep that up for another hundred minutes.
Wrong. He can, and does.
I could go on and on about how funny Hanks is, but I’ll mention just one more, maybe my favorite bit of character business. In Part 2, wheedling Mistress Quickly, he turns away in mock resolve: “Let it alone” (2.1.142). Behind his back, Hanks’ hand remains open, and he twitches his fingers ever so slightly, at which gesture, Quickly cannot help but relent. Sublime.
And Hanks is not at all alone in his excellence. Director Sullivan has casted and coached a capable ensemble, especially Raffi Barsoumian’s sharp Hotspur and Hamish Linklater’s unusually soft-spoken and melancholic Hal. His is a Hal who truly has no desire for kingship, whose initial soliloquy is simultaneously defensive and dejected, and whose ultimate rejection of Falstaff sadder still.
The sincere friendship between these two has been evident throughout. Falstaff’s “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.438) is grand and enthusiastic, not at all a plea for mercy, and Hal’s response—“I do. I will” (2.5439)—is baldly apologetic. Then, again, when Hal warns Falstaff before the battle, “thou owest God a death” (5.1.126), it is not scornful or spiteful but earnest and endearing, and Hal’s reaction to Falstaff’s seeming death is obvious sorrow. Moments later, undeceived, Hal laughs at Falstaff’s lie about killing Percy, shaking his head but offering him the fallen Hotspur’s sword as a trophy, undeserved but not begrudged.
Yet eventually Hal does indeed banish Falstaff, condemning the old knight who kneels in front of him with a flat but firm voice. Falstaff stands slowly, looking blankly after the retreating monarch. He does not move from that place as the cast disperses. There are no arrests or any mention of carrying to the fleet, but Prince John and the Chief Justice pass by Falstaff, ignoring him and speaking casually of the impending foreign campaign. Falstaff just stands, still looking blankly off, and the lights fade to a harsh gold glow, then out. Just as I have never been so amused by Falstaff’s antics, I have never been so saddened by his repudiation.
Now, here’s the only rub. I’m not sure I should be that moved by Falstaff’s fate. As hilarious and as heartbreaking as Hanks’ performance is, it softens, if not eliminates the villainy that must at least cloak the character through any complete reading of the text. Hanks and Sullivan only gently address Falstaff’s lying, cheating, stealing, and leading his followers to unnecessary death. They cut entirely his speech on the road to Coventry, excising his account of his misdeeds and his callous appraisal of his troops: “food for powder” (4.2.58). They leave intact his line “I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered” (5.3.35), though it is said briefly and breathily. They do not dispense with the dodgy draft in Part 2, though it is trimmed significantly.
The reason seems pretty plain to me. Hanks and Sullivan want a loveable Falstaff, and that is much harder—maybe impossible—to depict unless certain aspects of the character are ignored, or at least downplayed. I understand, and I enjoyed their kinder version, even if it is not quite as rigorously faithful to the text.
It does make sense, especially given one of the major frameworks of the production. Long a champion for members of the military, Hanks has led the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in many efforts to support those who serve, and this production is no exception. It takes place on the grounds of the West LA Veterans Administration Campus, and the stage and set were built by veterans. Thousands of free tickets have been offered to past and present soldiers. The program proudly announces: “we dedicate these pages to the men and women who have made each day safer for us. We gratefully salute all those that serve, have served, and will serve.”
Given the framework of this admirable commitment, the interpretation of Falstaff strikes me as logical, albeit still potentially problematic. I hasten to acknowledge that, having never served myself, I am in no position to express criticism on a soldier’s behalf, but I would have been curious to hear how attending veterans would have reacted to the avaricious self-service steeping Falstaff’s announcement: “Tis no matter if I do halt; I have the wars for my colour, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable” (1.3.225-26). Hanks exited to general applause and laughter.
Then again, perhaps the tragic consequences to Falstaff’s comic cravenness are part of the point. While I’ve never bought Harold Bloom’s eloquent arguments for the fundamental goodness of Falstaff, I confess it is possible to see him as representative of the struggle for survival under hopeless circumstances, choosing the absolute of tangible life over abstract morality. Certainly Hanks’ splendid work shows a version of the character as refreshing in conception as it is remarkable in execution. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be present for this actor’s first major foray into Shakespeare, and I would be thrilled for more. Lear, maybe…?
Company website: https://www.shakespearecenter.org/