Shakespeare's plays are the greatest storytelling available to the stage," says Jack O'Brien, the director of Lincoln Center Theater's star-studded production of Shakespeare's Henry IV. "This play is a conflagration, a grass fire. It's about a living human situation. Not only is it a hell of a story, filled with action and laughter and spilling over with life — it's also painfully applicable to everyone who sees it. Because you don't see a historical pageant. You see your own life passing before your eyes."
O'Brien, a five-time Tony nominee and a winner as best director last season for Hairspray, is sitting in a Times Square rehearsal studio just before beginning his day's work. As he speaks, his words and his actions betray his passion for the playwright.
"This is Shakespeare's father-son play," O'Brien says. The director's voice is a fiery soliloquy; his arms wave as if he were a Shakespearean king brandishing a sword. "It's the play that almost every one of us, particularly men, have been through," he says. "We all need mentors. And then, because you can't live your entire life with your father hanging over your head, you have to get rid of them. That's what this play is about."
The phrase "star-studded" is usually a cliche, but for this production, which combines and condenses Henry IV Parts I and II into one evening at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, it seems an understatement. Richard Easton plays the title role, the usurper king; Michael Hayden is Henry's son, the youthful and callow Prince Hal, the king-in-waiting; Kevin Kline is Falstaff, the jovial fat knight, Hal's other mentor; Ethan Hawke is the impassioned rebel Hotspur; Audra McDonald is Lady Percy, Hotspur's outspoken wife; and Dana Iveyplays both Mistress Quickly and Lady Northumberland.
The action begins right after Richard II, when Henry has seized the throne and is facing rebellion. King Henry wishes that his son Hal, who hangs out with drunken cowards and thieves, chief among them Falstaff, would be more like Hotspur, the king's fiercely brave rival. But Hal, soon to be the hero king of Henry V, knows he is just biding time before renouncing his Falstaffian ways. The two plays' seven-and-a-half hours are now about three hours, 45 minutes, including two intermissions. The adaptation is by Dakin Matthews, who is, among other things, an actor and a professor emeritus of English at California State University.
"The second play is done so rarely in this country and only paired with the first," says Matthews, who also portrays both Warwick and Glendower. "Part two is a wonderful play, though not as great as part one. But it has five or six glorious scenes that no one should be allowed to get through life without seeing. It also finishes the major stories left open at the end of part one."
For Easton, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play is both universal and "entirely personal.
"I'm playing a king from the 1400's," he says, "but it's the same as a commuter from New Jersey who is having trouble with his son. The history part is less interesting than the father who wishes Hotspur was his son because Hal is such an unsatisfactory one."
McDonald says that in presenting the language of Shakespeare, her experience in musicals has been crucial. "It seems similar to doing a musical," she says, "because the language is so musical and rhythmic. It's about making sure I'm locating the right stresses, finding the right phrasing, very much as I would do with a song."
Ivey says that for her, the language also presents a challenge — and it is an exhilarating one. "It's so robust, so virile," she says. "It demands so much. You have to match its energy, its passion."
There's that word passion again. Which brings us back to O'Brien, who has been the artistic director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego since 1982 — and who says that passion is not the only reason he is doing Shakespeare in New York.
"I've never before done a classic play on Broadway," says the director, who has often presented the classics out west. "I want it to be remembered in New York that I do this, too — it's not just Hairspray."