Henry IV by William Shakespeare, Directed by Beth Burns for The Hidden Room, York Rite Masonic Hall, Austin TX, Sept 8 – Oct 1, 2017
Reviewed James Loehlin on September 15, 2017
Beth Burns’s Austin company, The Hidden Room, has established a reputation for energetic and experimental early modern productions, often employing all-male companies and some variation on original practices. Their newest offering, Henry IV, diverges slightly from company style in using modern costuming, rock music, and a few female actors, but it maintains the Hidden Room trademark of high-octane, testosterone-fuelled Shakespeare.
The performance, like most of the company’s work, takes place ‘in a Hidden Room somewhere within the York Rite Masonic Hall’. The venue is a large Masonic meeting room, perhaps 30 x 12 yards; the audience sits in two rows along the long walls, watching the play in traverse or tennis-court style. A raised dais at one end comes into occasional use for a throne room. At the other end, a platform backed with a hidden doorway provides a hiding-place for Falstaff in the tavern. With its wooden floor and warm, dim universal lighting, the room provides something of a period, Blackfriars Playhouse feeling (slightly skewed by a large painting of George Washington in Masonic apron).
For this production, Burns and designer Aaron Flynn use twentieth-century glam-rock costumes and makeup, as well as live music by Todd Kassens, a longtime Austin musician and actor, whose band Shoulders helped create Austin’s alternative music scene in the 1980s. The actors wear heavy eye shadow, spiky hair, and new-Romantic frock coats or leather jackets over jeans and boots. This look creates silhouettes that are not wholly out of keeping with a Renaissance aesthetic. The glam-rock style creates a few resonances with the play, including a flashy but counter-cultural vibe for the tavern lowlifes, a punk edge for the rebels, and an element of glitzy homoeroticism surrounding Prince Hal. The music—mostly late-70s glam and punk—helps establish this atmosphere with some opening songs, notably David Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’, sung by Isto Barton’s acidic Poins. The music then drops mostly into the background, apart from a few buzzing guitar riffs for scene changes and battle sequences.
The play is billed as Henry IV, but in fact is only Part I, apart from a curtain-call rendition of the epilogue from Part II. There are relatively few cuts and changes to the Part I text, which makes a full evening on its own. It is in some ways unfortunate that the production does not include any Part II material, because the character most suited to the glam aesthetic might be the swaggering Ancient Pistol. But there are plenty of swaggerers here, beginning with Rommel Sulit’s aging rock-star King Henry, who mixes gangsterish bravado with regal gravitas and surprising tenderness. Brock England’s Hal, who begins the play drunkenly staggering across the length of the space with his pants around his ankles, is an enigmatic presence in some ways. He is clearly defined as a delinquent who has no real enthusiasm for his future role as king, but he keeps his distance from his tavern-mates as well. This produces interesting emotional resonances in the form of a jealous conflict between Barton’s Poins—a richly detailed performance of an often-neglected role—and Robert Matney’s magnificently louche Falstaff. I thought there were a few missed opportunities in the tavern scenes. Falstaff’s hilarious account of his Gadshill heroics, for instance, seems to call for more of an audience than the handful of rogues who actually participated in the robbery. But the “I do, I will,” moment is on target, emblematic of a production that comes into its full emotional force in the second half, when the play leaves the tavern world behind on the road to war.
Hal strikes a new chord in the interview with his father, a riveting scene played with great intensity by England and Sulit. Judd Farris’s doom-laden Hotspur stalks through the Hidden Room like a ghost, becoming a powerful presence in the scenes of rebellion gone awry. In black leather and jeans, his eyes staring glassily from his skull-like makeup, he is an angrier, darker, sadder Hotspur than most. Downplaying some of the humor and warmth of the character, Ferris gives him instead a furious, electric energy, occasionally frozen into almost catatonic despair. But the emotional center of the play is Matney’s wry, weary Falstaff, who evolves from a droll charmer in the tavern to a philosopher on the battlefield. His speech on honor is one of the play’s highlights, an image of crafty wisdom confronting a stark, terrible truth. One wishes for a chance to see him finally facing the rejection by Hal, but it is clear in the performance that he can see it coming.
Henry IV adds another succcess to Hidden Room’s record of first-rate Shakespeare production. The performance I saw had a few lapses from the company’s usual scrupulous text work, but the overall standard was extremely high, the full-bodied physicality of the acting was exceptionally committed, and some individual performances, particularly Matney’s Falstaff, were as good as one can hope to see.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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