First Night: Henry IV, Parts I & II, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

English veneer out of place in a play that belongs to the world
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The Independent Culture

The acclaimed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Company has custom-built premises on the windy city's Navy Pier where the main auditorium, with its thrust stage and courtyard design, draws direct inspiration from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford. So it's nicely fitting that, as part of the Complete Works Festival, the Chicagoans have come to the venue that influenced their own.

The visiting productions in this season have so far ranged from a German Othello to a Japanese Titus Andronicus. But an American staging of the two parts of Henry IV might seem, at first blush, a trickier proposition. You can see how the narrow-minded might object that these plays are a panorama of quintessentially English life. But the political plight (a country torn in no-win civil strife between the forces of a usurping ruler and increasingly fragmented rebels) is as universal as the psychological drama about the human cost of accepting responsibility and of choosing between conflicting father-figures. Henry IV belongs to the world.

A shame, then, that Barbara Gaines's productions of the plays, while vigorous, swift-paced, adroitly cut and admirably committed, feel constrained by an unnecessary deference to Englishness. It's not just that they look embarrassingly old-fashioned, with terrible long wigs and black-leather ye-olde-cum-modern uniforms that were all the rage at the RSC in the 1970s.

More hampering are the weird, semi-anglicised accents affected by several of the leading actors. As Sir John Falstaff, Greg Vinkler, with his waggishly dancing eyebrows and mischievous humour, is a knight more in the Franz Hals mode than in the darker Rembrandt vein. There's not much sense of a hinterland.

Still, it's a genuinely engaging performance, marred for me, however, by the fact that Vinkler has overlaid his native tones with an inappropriate veneer of English gentility.

Likewise, given that Jeffrey Carlson plays the unreformed Prince Hal with the body language and nervous sniggers of a contemporary slacker, why has he been told to mangle the vowels sounds that come naturally to him?

The irony, of course, is that the American accent is much closer to how Shakespeare would have sounded than English RP. Let it out, guys.

At the end, a huge map of France is suddenly unfurled, with Agincourt prophetically pinpointed. It becomes suffused with blood-red light and the air is loud with the scary noise of battle. The new Henry V is about to distract his people from troubles at home by trumped-up foreign wars. Remind you anyone?

The production is accomplished and has some fine sequences (particularly the Welsh scene, where the eve-of-war apprehension and tenderness of the wives are beautifully evoked in Jessie Mueller's haunting rendition of Lady Mortimer's song). But it comes across more as a skilled imitation than something that has found its own voice.

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