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Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 3

The following article was published on DC Theatre Scene, March 26, 2014.

In this installment, Stacy expounds on the actor’s craft. Specifically, his thoughts and intentions on playing the role of Falstaff. -DL

Falstaff, like Richard III or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is great fun to play. When performed in both Henrys together, however, the role is a heavy load. Part 2, in particular, is filled with long speeches – Falstaff tends to go on, he does – and it’s crucial to be as off-book as possible before rehearsals even begin.

Stacy Keach (Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

I remember when Michael Kahn sent me his first cut of the two plays, back in September, I had already started memorizing lines. Of course, I wanted to put many lines back in. Falstaff has so many delicious ones, more than any other character in Shakespeare, by my reckoning.

Take, for example, this little riposte to Hal, from his first scene in Part 1. Falstaff has just been woken from a drunken snooze by a puppyish young prince eager to banter with him:

“How now, mad wag? What, in thy quips and thy quiddities? What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?”

The line has nothing to do with the plot. It doesn’t establish the scene or tell us where we are. It’s rightly cut in most performances. But it contains the indefinable essence of the character, in three breaths. In breath one, the insatiable, almost romantic affection for the prince, his dear “mad wag.” Breath two: the witty wordplay on “quips and quiddities,” which just sounds plain great as you turn it over in your mouth. The third and final breath tops it with bawdy wordplay on a “buff jerkin;” Falstaff and Hal have just been talking about their hostess, Mistress Quickly – played to perfection in this production by Kate Skinner – and some kind of dirty joke is clearly hanging thickly in the air.

I’ve always thought of Falstaff as a potent mixture of comedy and tragedy. He most reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, another role I’ve played. Hemingway was the first American author to awaken my sense of the power of prose in our times, and Falstaff is Shakespeare’s master of prose. Both figures remain fascinating to me for their combination of glory and sadness.

In Falstaff’s case, his character’s tragedy lies in his desperate need for the love and the attention of the young Prince Hal. Some of that is genuine, and some is driven by what can only be described as petty corruption: Falstaff has a dream of being a privileged member of the future king’s court. Some scholars say that Falstaff is a merry reveler of mythic proportions, an “apostle of permanent festivity” who dreams of turning the Boar’s Head Tavern into the center of a new Land of Cockaigne, a land of eternal Cakes and Ale. But I think he’s a human type that is often found these days around politicians. An enabler, a corrupter, a parasite. A friend who is great fun and one who also poses great danger.

The showmanship of Falstaff’s character comes easily to most actors, but finding that emotional state hidden beneath the bravado – that’s the challenge! I try delivering Falstaff’s bluster with a touch of self-awareness. He knows he is full of it, that he is always embellishing when he shouldn’t be. Yet being aware of his own flaws doesn’t change the nature of Falstaff’s behavior.

We see this clearly in Part 1, when he tells the story of the Gad’s Hill robbery. Back in the tavern, safe and sound, Falstaff expands and exaggerates his own danger from the night before, never looking back even as each false step is exposed. The telling always earns big laughs, which is a challenge for an actor trying to maintain his rhythm and pace. It’s also a challenge to not lose sight of the pathos beneath the humor in Shakespeare’s writing. Falstaff’s refusal to look back is the character’s downfall.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 cast with director Michael Kahn at STC’s Meet the Cast event (Photo: Elayna Speight)

For this production, I want to explore a side of Falstaff that I didn’t see clearly my first time around. I want to capture the sense that Falstaff subconsciously knows what is coming: Shakespeare presages the moment, brilliantly, later in that same tavern scene in Part 1. Falstaff and Hal are staging a “play extempore.” Falstaff acts as Hal and Hal plays his father, King Henry. Falstaff naturally plays this for laughs, saying:

“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

It’s a tricky scene. Falstaff is making a comic plea to Hal, but he is unwilling to believe that this is what fate holds in store for him. Falstaff always believes he will charm the audience, get the laughs, but the actor must reveal how he is clinging to his delusional belief. Falstaff must really buy into the idea that this is all a game, that none of this will come to pass. But the only way of showing this is to show him having doubts and banishing them, believing his own lie.

I may now be the only Shakespearean actor who has played this role twice with a gap of more than forty-five years in between. Obviously I was an exceedingly young Falstaff the first time around [see last week’s installment for the full story!]. I am older and wiser now. I’ve suffered more of life’s indignities. I don’t have to play at being an old man, I just have to be myself. The other change, of course, is that I no longer need quite so much padding.

It was a pleasure talking to you, bub, and I’ll see you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.

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