Call it "Shakespeare History Lite" - and whether or not you recoiled in horror at my use of the "lite" spelling may be indicative of how much you'll enjoy Shakespeare In the Ruins' production of Henry IV Parts I & II. Purists will find lots to pick at - but more casual Shakespeare fans will find the adaptation pleasing.
That's no mean feat, given that SIR has taken two of Shakespeare's full-length historical plays and pared their show down to a lean 150 minutes, performed by a cast of nine.
The broad strokes of Henry IV are here, which means that this is not really King Henry IV's story, but that of Prince Hal, his son (and the future King Henry V). Over the course of the two parts of Henry IV, young Hal is faced with putting aside his youthful debauching with his common friends (particularly the rotund fool Falstaff), and taking the heavy crown of England from his father. All this is set against the backdrop of a rebellion against Henry IV by some of the same lords who helped him take the throne from Richard II.
You can probably see why fitting this into two-and-a-half hours is an impressive accomplishment in itself.
Director Chris Sigurdson and designer Grant Guy accomplish this with a bare-bones, no-frills, and no-gimmicks approach to the material. There are no casting tricks, no stylized setting - just colourful doublets, tights, and mandolin music aplenty.
It doesn't make for the most visually or stylistically exciting take on Henry IV, but it's workable, thanks in large part to a smart adaptation. Scenes from both parts of Henry IV are blended fairly seamlessly, although the combination of the two plays results in a curious structure (the climactic battle of Henry IV Part I, for example, comes mid-way through the show's second half in this version).
Playing for Laughs
What's lost in the considerable paring will chagrin the purists and history buffs, but probably not bother anyone else - many of the nobles fighting for or against King Henry (played with a regal dignity by Kevin Anderson) disappear, as do most of the scenes involving the complex politics of the rebellion against Henry.
Thrust into the spotlight here are the comedic scenes which revolve around the buffoonish Falstaff, played with scene-stealing comic charm by David Warburton (who also took on the same role in last year's Merry Wives of Windsor). And many of those scenes draw big laughs (see, for example, the scene where Falstaff picks his "soldiers" - and a few cast members get to have great fun putting on funny voices and doing silly walks).
As for the rest of the cast, since Henry IV focuses on young Prince Hal, a lot rests on the shoulders of young actors, and the results here are mixed. Toby Hughes delivers a solid and serious performance as Hal, the prince who is finding himself on the way to kingship; but as Hal's impetuous rival Hotspur, Brock Couch doesn't quite sell the danger of the fiery young man until his fatal duel with Hal.
In the end, SIR's take on Henry IV is perhaps a bit like Prince Hal himself - torn between having fun (with the play's comedic elements) and duty (to the rest of Shakespeare's script). It doesn't always live up to its full potential... but it's certainly not without its own charm.