Dissolute Hal, Hot Hotspur, and Healthy Holly Collide in Chesapeake Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2

Sir John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess) spends his ill-gotten gains at the Boar’s Head tavern with friends. / Photo by C. Stanley Photography / Courtesy Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Walking in to see Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, you may think that it is appropriate for plays featuring the bawdy Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters,  to be performed so close to the city’s bawdy-houses on the Block, where Falstaffian hawkers hustle customers off the sidewalk a block away.

But, upon leaving, you may think it more appropriate that Chesapeake’s beautiful theater is a stone’s throw from City Hall—or should be now called it City Holly?—and the BPD headquarters. Because, while the two “Henry IV” plays are papered over with earthy banter, they are about power and the ways it changes the people who have and who want it.

Yes, there is the central, famous transformation of Hal, the dissolute prince who spends his time in the taverns, into the severe King Henry V, who will eventually order a massacre at Agincourt. But he is far from the only character changed by power. And even the delightful scenes of Prince Hal’s wasted youth serves to show how the underworld was affected by proximity to his future puissance. Everyone is driven mad by power.

Here’s the super-quick basic plot summary for both parts: A rebellion is brewing against King Henry IV, (Ron Heneghan) who was planning to go take back Jerusalem from the “pagans” but has to stay home to fight the rebels, led by Hotspur (Gerrad Alex Taylor). The rebels are the very people who helped Henry rise to power—see the Richard plays—but now that he is wielding it as he will, they are pissed.

Hotspur, also named Harry Percy, is a total bad-ass. Righteous and angry, he was gaining glory on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Henry IV’s own son Harry, called Hal (Seamus Miller), is a disgrace, living a dissolute life among a band of rogues led by John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess), one of Shakespeare’s great creations. But once war is certain, Hal turns himself around and saves his father’s life on the battlefield and improbably kills Hotspur in a battle of the Harrys—leaving Falstaff to try to take credit for it.

That’s Part 1. In Part 2, which is a far weaker play, there is a beautiful scene between Northumberland and Lady Percy (Elana Michelle), Hotspur’s widow, who convinces him to head for the hills in Scotland. The rebellion is then commanded by the Archbishop of York (Nello DeBlasio). Hal’s brother Prince John (DJ Batchelor) tricks them and puts down the rebellion. King Henry is sick. Falstaff lives off the glory of claiming to have killed Percy. Hal and his father have a final intense conversation just before Henry IV dies and Hal becomes Henry V. Convinced by the Chief Justice, he rencounces Falstaff, who had hoped to get in on the graft of power. It ends with a dark hint that the only way to truly quell internal dissent is to undertake a foreign war (see “Henry V”).

The Chesapeake productions are characterized by an earthy simplicity. The costumes do not try to be contemporary, but their understatedness would make them more at home in Station North than at a Renaissance Fair.

While they avoid the countless temptations to modernize the stories—replacing swords with guns etc.—Shakespeare always invades our contemporary context. Remember the furor last year when Trumpian apologists claimed that a performance of “Julius Caesar” was calling for the assassination of our dictat-er president?

But, to watch the play in 2019 Baltimore, which the cover of the New York Times Magazine declared an unraveling “tragedy,” will inevitably bring its own associations. This became particularly clear to me in a sort of hallucinatory scene in Part 1, when Hal, Falstaff, and the crew of Eastcheap thieves plans to rob a group of passing pilgrims. Then Ned Poins (Lance Bankerd) pulled the prince aside and proposed a different plan.

“I have a jest to execute that I cannot
manage alone. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto and Gadshill
shall rob those men that we have already waylaid:
yourself and I will not be there; and when they
have the booty, if you and I do not rob them, cut
this head off from my shoulders.”

So they wait for Falstaff and his crew to do the robbery and, wearing masks, rob him in turn.

This kind of double cross is precisely the kind of thing you could hear, a year ago, in a different sort of theater a mile or so away at the Federal Court on Lombard Street where Donny Stepp, the co-conspirator of GTTF mastermind Wayne Jenkins, recounted similar plans that he and Jenkins had made at various times. In one case, after Jenkins arrested a drug dealer and got the address of a house where guns and money were stashed, he stalled his own crew so that Stepp could get there and rob the house first. In another instance, Jenkins, who other cops called the “Prince of the City,” waited for people looting pharmacies during the riot on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral and then stole the drugs and brought them to Stepp.

The reason that all of this struck me so forcefully was because Bankerd as Poins had the bald head, grinning eyes, and wild enthusiasm of Stepp, who played for Jenkins a role quite similar to the role Poins played for the Prince. It was startling how similar it was, as if Bankerd were trying to make the allusion to Stepp, subtly (if you’ve only seen his mug shot, Stepp did not look nearly so bad on the witness stand in a dapper suit, so don’t look at that mug shot and feel bad, Bankerd). Bankerd played the part so well that it bounced right up against our own reality and the history of crime and corruption in our far more recent history, whether he intended it to or not.

Hal responds to Poins with a kind of detached enjoyment. He is carried away by the prank, but all of this is a prank for him because the consequences are far less serious for him. He is always doubled. Miller plays this version of Henry well, always a bit restrained, never letting his co-conspirators know exactly what he is thinking, always speaking in double-entendres and witticisms that can be read in more than one manner. This is part of Shakespeare’s comic genius on display in this tragedy, but it also says a lot about the nonchalant ways that power can be wielded so that the lives of others seem no more than a game to those who remain insulated by privilege wherever they go.

This ostentatious reserve, as it were, hits on another touchstone for any Gen-X viewer of this play: Miller’s Harry seems much indebted to Keanu Reeves in “My Own Private Idaho,” where he plays out the modernized transformation of Prince Hal into Henry V. Reeves’ wet-blanketed debauchery captures the character so well that it has almost entirely re-defined the role, to the point where the actual contemporary Prince Harry of England seems like an imitation of the actor.  

Miller’s two-faced affectlessness works all the way up to the pivotal moment at the very end of Part 2, when, as a character, Hal makes the transformation forcefully. As an actor, though, Miller falls slightly short. His Henry is not imperious enough by half. His rebuke of Falstaff is muted, muttered almost. Perhaps that was a choice, a way to play it, and it could be a smart one. A Henry still embarrassed by the necessities of the state. For that to work, the reluctance would have to be a bit more obvious.

I caught the double-feature, which was opening night of Part 2 and perhaps Miller hadn’t had the opportunity to develop that part of his character fully. He’d also had to go through all of that in one day and so perhaps the mutedness of the ascension will pass, as the show progresses into a full-blown rebuke and an acceptance of power.

The other striking and instructive parallel was accompanied by a transformation not unsimilar to that from Hal to Henry. Gerrad Alex Taylor played Hotspur with a true, unbridled fury in Part 1. He embodied ambition as anger or anger as ambition better than any Shakespearean actor I’ve ever seen. And, partly because he is black, he showed me how much the Erik Killmonger plot of Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie is based on the Hotspur arc of these plays. And, even moreso than in “Black Panther,” it raises the one false note: there’s no way that this Hal beats this Hotspur in a fight. But because no one in either drama thinks the prince has it in him to win, either, it makes it work—no one in the play believes it either.

The death of Hotspur allows Taylor to co-direct the second play, making, in a sense, the same transformation as Hal. And it is a hard transformation, because Part 2 is a weak play in many ways. The first half could be condensed and recapped in a single speech. But Taylor and Ian Gallagher, who directed Part 1, do a fine job at helping the weaker play stand up to its predecessor. That usually only works if the transformation from Hal to Henry and the renunciation of Falstaff is total and brutal. In this case it was not. And Gregory Burgess as a funny and fulsome Falstaff may not yet have been able to bring the full resonance of feeling to his disappointment in the scene, either. Again it was first performance of “Part 2”—and Falstaff, so vital on the page, is exceedingly hard to bring to life. It is not that difficult to do Falstaff, so finely written, passingly well, but near impossible to make him organic and alive. Like Miller as Hal, Burgess comes close, but seemed to fall slightly short of the emotional range required by the final scene.

Even without that, the Chesapeake team really brought off the double header, and, I suspect the emotional nuances of the characters in “Part 2” will develop over the coming weeks.

There are still a couple double-headers, on March 23 and 30. It is really quite an experience to devote the better part of a day to inhabiting this world, a kind of public binge watching with a big dinner in between. And it was that kind of binging on the Bard that had me back out on Calvert Street staring up at the stately dome of City Hall and simply shaking my head.

The crimes that define a time are sometimes bloody and fierce, while at others, they are pure farce. Imagine the play about Pugh renouncing Healthy Holly. How now.

Henry IV Part 1, through March 30. Henry IV Part 2, through April 7. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. 7 S. Calvert St.

Baltimore Beat relies on support from readers. If you like the work we do, have not already subscribed, and have a few bucks to spare please subscribe to our Patreon.

  1. I simply want to say I am just new to blogging and site-building and absolutely enjoyed your blog site. More than likely I’m likely to bookmark your website . You actually come with good article content. Appreciate it for sharing your web-site.

  2. I like the helpful info you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently. I am quite certain I’ll learn lots of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

  3. Hello would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with? I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a tough time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique. P.S Sorry for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  4. Hello would you mind letting me know which web host you’re utilizing? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a fair price? Many thanks, I appreciate it!

  5. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will be grateful to you.

  6. This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

  7. Hiya! I was checking out your website for the first time during lunch and wanted to say I had fun reading it. I thought I’d share my site too. You can learn about past life regression there. Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks!!

  8. Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I’ve really loved browsing your weblog posts. In any case I will be subscribing in your feed and I’m hoping you write once more very soon!

  9. Today, I went to the beachfront with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  10. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the identical comment. Is there any means you may take away me from that service? Thanks!

  11. Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed! Very useful info specially the last part 🙂 I care for such information much. I was seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  12. One important issue is that if you are searching for a student loan you may find that you will need a cosigner. There are many situations where this is true because you might discover that you do not use a past credit history so the mortgage lender will require that you’ve got someone cosign the financial loan for you. Thanks for your post.

  13. I am really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

  14. Thank you for sharing superb informations. Your site is very cool. I’m impressed by the details that you’ve on this blog. It reveals how nicely you understand this subject. Bookmarked this web page, will come back for extra articles. You, my friend, ROCK! I found simply the information I already searched all over the place and simply could not come across. What a great site.

  15. Great work! That is the type of info that are supposed to be shared across the web. Disgrace on the seek engines for no longer positioning this submit higher! Come on over and discuss with my web site . Thank you =)

  16. Today, with all the fast lifestyle that everyone leads, credit cards have a big demand throughout the market. Persons out of every area of life are using the credit card and people who are not using the credit cards have lined up to apply for just one. Thanks for expressing your ideas in credit cards.

  17. I think other site proprietors should take this site as an model, very clean and excellent user friendly style and design, let alone the content. You’re an expert in this topic!

  18. you’re in reality a excellent webmaster. The web site loading pace is incredible. It sort of feels that you are doing any unique trick. Moreover, The contents are masterwork. you have performed a magnificent activity on this matter!

  19. Woah! I’m really digging the template/theme of this website. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s very difficult to get that “perfect balance” between user friendliness and appearance. I must say that you’ve done a great job with this. In addition, the blog loads very fast for me on Internet explorer. Superb Blog!

  20. This design is incredible! You definitely know how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  21. I cling on to listening to the news bulletin speak about receiving boundless online grant applications so I have been looking around for the most excellent site to get one. Could you tell me please, where could i find some?

  22. Hello, Neat post. There is an issue together with your site in internet explorer, may test this¡K IE still is the market leader and a huge portion of other people will pass over your excellent writing because of this problem.

  23. Thanks for your publication. I also think laptop computers have gotten more and more popular lately, and now are usually the only sort of computer found in a household. The reason being at the same time that they are becoming more and more cost-effective, their working power is growing to the point where they may be as strong as personal computers through just a few in years past.

  24. These days of austerity and also relative anxiety about incurring debt, many individuals balk against the idea of utilizing a credit card in order to make purchase of merchandise or even pay for a vacation, preferring, instead to rely on a tried in addition to trusted way of making transaction – hard cash. However, if you’ve got the cash available to make the purchase 100 , then, paradoxically, that’s the best time to use the credit card for several factors.

  25. Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog centered on the same topics you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.

  26. Wow! This can be one particular of the most beneficial blogs We’ve ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Excellent. I’m also an expert in this topic so I can understand your hard work.

  27. I just could not depart your web site before suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard information a person provide for your visitors? Is gonna be back often in order to check up on new posts

  28. Wow, wonderful blog layout! How long have you been running a blog for? you make running a blog look easy. The entire look of your website is magnificent, as smartly as the content!

  29. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

  30. An interesting discussion is price comment. I believe that it is best to write extra on this subject, it might not be a taboo topic however generally persons are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  31. Generally I do not learn post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to take a look at and do so! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thank you, very great post.

  32. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.’ By Ronald Reagan

  33. Great work! This is the type of info that should be shared around the internet. Shame on Google for not positioning this post higher! Come on over and visit my website . Thanks =)

  34. One other issue is when you are in a circumstances where you would not have a co-signer then you may really need to try to exhaust all of your educational funding options. You could find many awards and other scholarship grants that will present you with funding to assist with school expenses. Thx for the post.

  35. wonderful points altogether, you just gained a emblem new reader. What would you recommend about your put up that you just made a few days in the past? Any sure?

  36. I don’t even know how I ended up here, however I believed this publish used to be good. I don’t realize who you’re however certainly you are going to a famous blogger in case you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  37. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” by Sir Arthur Eddington.

  38. Needed to post you that little bit of note to say thanks over again with the remarkable information you have featured on this site. This is simply unbelievably generous of you to present without restraint all a number of us might have advertised for an ebook in order to make some cash for themselves, especially now that you might well have done it in case you desired. The basics as well served to become a fantastic way to fully grasp that most people have a similar fervor much like my very own to know significantly more on the topic of this issue. I am sure there are some more fun opportunities ahead for many who look over your site.

  39. Usually I don’t read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice article.

  40. Wonderful items from you, man. I’ve bear in mind your stuff previous to and you are simply too fantastic. I actually like what you have received here, really like what you are stating and the best way during which you assert it. You are making it enjoyable and you continue to care for to stay it smart. I can not wait to read far more from you. That is really a great web site.

  41. Definitely believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the web the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while people think about worries that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks