The Jack Falstaff Experience

Valuable lessons have been learnt from the first ever staging of the Henry IV plays at the reconstructed Globe theatre on London’s Southbank. The productions have told us something about the nature of the plays and about the nature of the Globe theatre space itself. Bringing these two elements together has produced some interesting emergent effects in performance.

It has already been noted how the Globe creates a unique bond between audience and cast. By standing fully lit at the foot of the stage, the groundlings are effectively in a conversation with the actors. The cast act and the people standing in the yard react knowing that their reactions are equally well-lit and visible and can be seen by the performers. The bond originates in the knowledge each group has that it is visible to the other.

A standing audience can also be much freer in its physical reactions than a seated audience. The Globe’s custom of having the cast make entrances and exits through the yard also removes the specific boundary between actors and audience.

This connection magnifies the comedy element in any production. When an audience is engaged by tragedy it can be rapt and silent. Success is measured by the pin-drop silence that descends over an audience. However, pin-drop silence in reaction to comedy would be a sign of failure: success in comedy is gauged by the noise and movement of the spectators.

This means that when comedy is played at the Globe the feedback from the audience is more immediate and intense than at traditional venues. The audience feedback then shapes the performance of the cast in a beneficial cycle of rewards.

The Globe staging of these two plays, which contain some of the funniest moments in Shakespeare, took full advantage of these phenomena. The overall effect led many people to conclude that these were finest performances of the Henry IV plays they had ever seen.

Compared with previous productions it was like seeing the plays for the first time. The vitality that audiences and readers have always detected within the story of Hal and Falstaff was here given complete expression. This was empirical confirmation that the plays had been designed to work particularly well at an outdoor theatre like the Globe: it was only here that the full force of their magic could be set free.

But this obviously required a cast that could make use of the opportunities provided by the space and direction that could use it intelligently. Fortunately we got both.

The simplest way of demonstrating the success of the formula is to look at the key character of Falstaff, played by Roger Allam. The casting was a genius move. Instead of finding someone fat and old and crossing fingers hoping he could be funny, they found an actor who excels at comedy and then fitted him out to look the part.

Performed at the Globe by Roger Allam, Falstaff was even more self-dramatising than usual.

It could be said that Allam’s Falstaff was a performance akin to a play within a play and that his primary audience were the other characters in the production. This performance existed independently of any paying audience coming to watch it and would have happily continued had the doors to the Globe remained closed.

We, the paying audience, were let in on this performance almost as an afterthought, as if the boastful attention-seeking of the character had suddenly required a wider public.

An awareness of this seemed to inform some of the directorial decisions in the production so that references to performance were incorporated into it. This went beyond the play-acting included in the text such as the Eastcheap scene in which Hal and Jack take turns to be King Henry.

In Part One 3.3 we saw Falstaff and Hal acting like rock musicians with Sir Jack strumming a lute behind his neck Hendrix-style and Hal giving high-tens to the groundlings and pretending to crowd surf.

Falstaff’s miraculous recovery from injury in 5.4 was given a theatrical flavour. When felled by a sword he clasped at his neck as blood appeared to pour from a wound. It looked as if his jugular had been cut and his fate was sealed. On rising from the ground and explaining the ‘counterfeit’, Falstaff showed the pot of fake blood that he had used to create the pretence of death.

This overt use of stage blood to produce a theatrical effect within the world of the play, consciously displayed the kind of self-dramatisation that Falstaff deployed in more subtle ways elsewhere.

Anyone seeing the two parts of the Henry IV back to back would have been able to view Falstaff enjoying his celebrity status in two connected moments.

After the end of Part One, Falstaff re-entered just before the jig and was applauded by the audience. He gestured with his hand to control the audience’s reaction like a conductor guiding an orchestra: the hand up to increase applause and down to quieten it. Although once the play has finished we tend to see the actors rather than the characters, in this instance it was definitely Falstaff at the centre of our attention.

This applause volume control then reappeared on Falstaff’s first appearance in Part Two. The scene was rewritten slightly so that he entered to general acclaim as the victor of the Battle of Shrewsbury. He soaked up applause from those on stage and, after gesturing upwards with his outstretched palm, also from the paying audience.

We were not necessarily applauding the actor for his performance but rather entering into a contract with the character of Falstaff to recognise his special status within the production. His character was almost beyond theatre.

To paraphrase the text, when we applauded ‘plump Jack’ we were applauding something good about the world.

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