For the average theatergoer, going to a production of a William Shakespeare play can either be an enlightening night of poetic culture or it can feel like homework. The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of Henry IV, helmed by Tony Award-winning Daniel Sullivan, lands somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but leans towards enlightening and fun, thanks to its impressive cast of star power that is fronted by Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks, Scandal‘s Joe Morton, and Legion actor Hamish Linklater.
Henry IV, Shakespeare’s two-part play that makes for a three hour-plus theater experience at the Japanese Garden on the V.A. campus, can be considered a frenemy bromance between Linklater’s Hal and Hanks’ Falstaff, the latter being a character that appears multiple times in the Shakespeare-iverse. Hal is the son of the titular king, played with an appropriate patriarchial authority by Morton.
The King is in a crisis, as he is at odds with Henry Percy, aka Hotspur (played with unbridled passion by Raffi Barsoumian) and his uncle Worcester (Josh Clark). The King’s son, Hal, is basically the epitome of a son living off his privilege, spending his days drinking, stirring up trouble with a bunch of losers, and hanging out with Falstaff, whom he constantly body shames and makes the clumsy overweight drunkard the butt of many of his jokes. Still, Falstaff and him remain frenemies, despite Hal and company’s constant humiliation of Falstaff.
Tones of political revolt and struggles of power flow through the veins of the play, as we see the relationships of Hal unfold. There’s the aforementioned toxic bromance between him and Falstaff, and his relationship with his father, who demands a lot from him, but expects nothing because of Hal’s indifference and immaturity — which all shifts at the play’s end when he finally takes the crown after his father’s death and throws some serious, Mariah Carey-grade “I don’t know her” shade at Falstaff.
Henry IV gave me the opportunity to utilize what I have learned from that one semester when I took Shakespeare Literature. But alas, that was years ago. Even if I did recollect the teachings, I don’t recall Henry IV being on the syllabus.
Attempting to read or view any work by Shakespeare requires a certain kind of attention, because, well, no one talks how Shakespeare writes anymore — and if you do use phrases like “anon good nurse” on a daily basis, it’s totally pretentious. That aside, I continue to admire works by the Bard, but when it comes to historical plays like Henry IV, there’s an intimidation that is attached to it because: 1.) There’s a lot to digest when taking in the dense vernacular on the page and 2.) It’s history. It’s essential to have some knowledge of some of these real-life figures and to know of the time during which Shakespeare wrote the play so that you are aware of context and all that jazz. The task itself feels like exhausting homework. Despite all that and my aversion to Shakespeare plays whose title has a single name and a roman numeral, SCLA’s production of Henry IV wasn’t the arduous task that I feared it to be.
Each actor down the line sells these lines which, at times, will make many people — including myself — searching for footnotes for deeper explanation. With a stripped rustic set from Ralph Funicello and costumes by Holly Poe Durbin, the play immerses you in this historic world of King Henry’s court
Admittingly, Hanks, who makes his West Coast theater debut with Henry IV, is a huge draw for audiences to come out to the leafy outdoor theater at the Japanese Garden in West Los Angeles because, well, it’s Tom Hanks. As Falstaff, Hanks provides an enjoyable disheveled and drunken performance (and if you’re lucky enough, he might riff in character with the audience during an abrupt pause caused by a medical emergency) that gives the play a charismatic pulse. He is one cog in a wheel that keeps this play going, and provides a jolt of con-man energy that lights up the stage alongside Linklater’s commendable portrayal of Hal’s emotional journey from “I don’t give AF” heir to the throne to becoming the regal and more “mature” Henry V.
The relationship between Hanks’ Falstaff and Linklater’s Hal is the bread and butter of the play, as we see two friends treating each other like garbage for personal and professional gain — with Hal succeeding the most. As the two go on this journey of royal hijinks, they are backed by phenomenal supporting players, including the aforementioned Morton, Tony winner Rondi Reed, Harry Groener, Chris Myers, Jeff Marlow, Ray Porter, Chris Rivera, Geoffrey Wade, Time Winters, and Emily Swallow.
If Henry IV was adapted into something more contemporary, it would certainly be a bro comedy between two con-men — one more privileged than the other. I would totally watch it. In fact, I did. It was called My Own Private Idaho. But if they recreated another lighthearted 21st-century version aimed at millennials with some hip actors of the time, I’d be open to that one too…but SCLA’s production works just as well. The three-hour plus run-time and historical heaviness have the potential to weigh the audience down, but Henry IV fights through that, staying afloat with Shakespearian flair and noteworthy cast.