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Love, Sex and Violence | Henry IV Parts 1 & 2

The following article was published at OnTap Online, April 1, 2014.

It’s not very often that you hear Shakespeare’s plays described as “sexy.” But to actors John Keabler and Kelley Curran, Henry IV is as sexy as it gets. The onstage couple plays hot-blooded warrior Hotspur and his wife Lady Percy in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) productions ofHenry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, performed in repertory from March 25 to June 8.

Rehearsal photo of John Keabler and the cast of Henry IV, Part 1 by Elayna Speight

STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn is at the helm of the productions, directing a cast of more than 30 actors in two plays about the regional and political differences in England through the dual lens of royalty and the common people.

Part 1 follows young Prince Hal as he navigates three paths: tomfoolery at the tavern of Sir John Falstaff (played by renowned stage actor and STC Affiliated Artist Stacy Keach), confrontation of his foe and rival Hotspur on the battlefield, and responsibility to his father King Henry IV’s royal court. In Part 2, the prince must grow up fast when his father becomes ill and a bloody war starts.

From epic fight scenes where the stage is filled with actors wielding swords, shields and pikes to intimate moments between Hotspur and Lady Percy, Keabler and Curran believe that Henry IV offers audiences a brand new perspective on Shakespeare.

When asked what makes the plays worth seeing, Keabler answers with a tongue-in-cheek response of, “Love, sex and violence.” But in reality, the actor is dead serious about how relatable Shakespeare’s themes are to modern-day audiences. He says Part 1 is like a movie script, with scenes taking place outdoors, in court and even in bedrooms.

“[Henry IV] is the reason we have good TV today,” Keabler postulates. “Everyone asks, ‘Oh, I don’t like Shakespeare, but have you seen Game of Thrones?’ And we say, ‘Game of Thrones is only here because Shakespeare wrote Henry IV, Part 1 and Macbeth and all of these other plays.”’

Curran couldn’t agree more, suggesting that Coach Taylor and his wife Tami from TV series Friday Night Lights are a contemporary version of Hotspur and Lady Percy. She says the similarities between the two couples are uncanny.

Photo courtesy of Kelley Curran

“They [both] go head to head with each other, they’re total equals, and they have such mutual respect and deep affection [for one another],” Curran explains.

She describes Hotspur and Lady Percy’s marriage as beautiful, and says their physicality is written into the text.

“How physically intimate and connected they are with one another comes right off of the page,” she says. “That combined with the incredible language they get to use with each other – they’re such a stimulating pair. They’re so lovely to play out even when they’re fighting with each other.”

Keabler says this physical connection is extremely rare in Shakespeare’s plays.

“They are the sexiest couple in the Shakespeare canon,” he says. “You heard it here first.”

Both actors feel lucky to have multiple scenes where it’s just the two of them onstage.

“In a play that’s full of large group scenes with kings and soldiers, we get this breather where we get to be together in a room with Michael [Kahn] directing just two people [and it’s] such a thrilling experience,” Curran says. “It feels like such a private treat during a rehearsal process where there are usually 10 to 20 people in the room at any given moment.”

What it all boils down to for Curran and Keabler is how deeply personal the plays are even though they’re on such a grand scale, both in scope and characters. Keabler says each theme explores the triumphs, struggles and disappointments of familial relationships and friendships.

“[Henry IV] is astonishing in its scope,” he says. “Our characters are definitely beautiful friends before everything else.”

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