It’s 1403 and Hotspur is leading an army to attack the king of England, Henry IV, while his son Prince Hal embarrasses the family in a bar.
Or is it 2015 and we’re in The Artery witnessing that moment when a child becomes an adult (or, in Prince Hal’s case, starts acting like a future king)? Between selfies and FaceTime and talk of rebellion and an army of footsoldiers coming in from the north all I know is that The Falstaff Project sweeps us away into another fantastic performance from Thou Art Here Theatre, playing until March 15.
Adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 by Thou Art Here’s Co-Artistic Director Andrew Ritchie, The Falstaff Project takes us into the bar where Prince Hal (Neil Kuefler) and his friend Sir John Falstaff (Troy O’Donnell) have spent many a day – er, make that a week or a month drinking, thieving and generally living it up with the common folk. The focus of The Falstaff Project is on the relationship between Hal and Falstaff as the events of the outside world (the overall plot of Henry IV Part 1) remind them of their roles in society and they must make the choice to refuse or embrace those roles. Throughout the play, we witness Hal’s relationship with Falstaff change from easy camaraderie to disdainful as Hal renounces his low-life ways and returns to noble behaviour befitting the future King Henry V of England.
Andrew’s adaptation of Henry IV Part 1 allows us to enjoy and understand the scenes between Falstaff and Prince Hal on their own, without really needing to have read or seen the original text in its entirety by bringing the relevant events from the world outside the bar in through videos on various TV screens throughout the bar. I think the fact that this play is accessible regardless of the audience’s knowledge of Henry IV Part 1 is a huge accomplishment, given that the adaptation still uses Shakespeare’s original text while paying homage to The Artery and responding to the fact that the audience is rooted in the year 2015 and its accompanying mannerisms and technology.
The integration of video into The Falstaff Project in the form of news broadcasts (which work surprisingly well in Shakespearian prose) was a really creative use of multimedia, which kept the audience informed of the events happening outside the tavern that affected the characters of The Falstaff Project without taking away from the meat of the story that is the relationship between Falstaff and Hal.
Having seen Thou Art Here’s production of Much Ado About Nothing last summer, I was a little disappointed at first that most of the audience sat in one spot throughout The Falstaff Project and it wasn’t quite the same experience of following the actors throughout the space as we experienced in Rutherford House last spring. The actors still moved freely throughout the space and amongst the audience members, but in The Falstaff Project the audience mostly stays put at their chairs with their beer. However, as the play progresses and the actors interact more with the audience members, we realize that we’re more than just an audience – we’re the patrons of the bar that Falstaff revels in spending time with. We’re the ones who have made this tavern our home alongside Falstaff and Hal and sit there with our beers as the weeks pass and Falstaff, Hal, Poins, and Bardolph weave in and out of the tavern and the world around it. This realization provides insight into the character of Falstaff – we are his people (to borrow the phrase from Grey’s Anatomy). We’re there for a good time – so is he – and he wants to hang out with us, not with people in a similar life station as Falstaff.
This brings me to my only real criticism of the piece, which is that although the focus of the play was on the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and the idea of accepting duty and responsiblity, there were also some political undertones peaking through the story that I wasn’t quite able to piece together. I hope Thou Art Here continues to develop The Falstaff Project and explore those political themes further. The company has done a great job of integrating the audience: making the audience part of the world of the play and in some ways bringing the play into the world of the audience. Those political undertones in the play could leave the audience with food for thought after they leave. After all, we live in a province with politicians who make us shake our heads at least as much as Henry IV Part 1‘s characters did in their own time, I’m sure there’s some interesting comparisons that could resonate in both the world of the play and the audience’s own world. Those hints at political themes didn’t take away from this production, but certainly tantalize what a future production could hold.
I expected nothing else but, of course, the cast of The Falstaff Project was great. On whole, the cast was unfailingly boisterous, reinforcing the idea that Falstaff lives for the next moment, the next drink, the next joke. At the start of the show, this is the world Falstaff has created and the one he wants to revel in for the rest of his life, if he can manage it. But, with each news broadcast, we feel the levity of that world slip away, piece by piece, until nothing is left but an old bar filled with memories of good times past by and somber people who have now come back from a war.
As Falstaff, Troy O’Donnell was great, presenting this perfect blend of a man who knew he should be out doing things befitting his station as a knight but… he’d rather drink and have fun and generally live life to its fullest. Troy plays the role with equal parts the rogue and the man who has lived long enough to know better. Playing Falstaff’s counterpart, Prince Hal, Neil Kuefler was equally fun to watch. As in the original Henry IV Part 1, Prince Hal undergoes the most dramatic transformation of any of the characters, renouncing his rascalish youth and becoming more and more like a nobleman throughout the play. Neil played Hal as someone who will willingly admit he enjoys the games and parties, although he firmly distances himself from the low people he’s presently spending his time with. One of my favourite moments of the play was seeing Neil as Hal watching a message posted to YouTube by the enemy Hotspur, where you can see the resignation in his face that his days of fun are soon going to be over and he knows he’ll soon have to join the “real world” as an adult.
The Falstaff Project plays at The Artery (9535 Jasper Avenue) until March 15. Tickets are $20 in advance for the performance + bands (there are 2 – 3 local bands playing per night right after the show) or $5 for only the bands (after 9:00 p.m.) from YEGLive.ca. Doors open at 7:00, show starts at 7:30.