Kline’s Falstaff Scintillates In Shakespeare for American Dummies

Falstaff, the old tosspot, is a man who’s everything he seems, and Kevin Kline’s magnificent creation of Falstaff at Lincoln Center is everything a masterly performance could be. Between the two, the happiest of partnerships!

Is there anyone on earth happier than Falstaff anyway? The old rogue who scoffs genially at mad kings and preening puritans, at righteous clergymen and extremely moral politicians-the world!-is Everyman in his right mind. Never judge a man by his booze or his whores. Falstaff belongs to the forgiving world of high spirits and human weakness. He commits the crime of enjoying life while seeing through it. “Give me life ,” the “cowardly” Falstaff cries out on the battlefield, where mere mortals are fodder for guns.

Falstaff: guilt-free eternal child and Lord of Misrule living in enviable, lovely, perfect freedom. I’m tiring a bit of Harold Bloom’s appropriation of him as if he is Falstaff. “Once upon a time we were all Falstaffs,” W.H. Auden wrote in one of his finest essays, “The Prince’s Dog,” and I prefer his note of inclusiveness: “We were all Falstaffs.” His melancholy “once upon a time” acknowledges a world of fable where all unruly, badly behaved renegades must be banished from the adult Kingdom of Reality.

“Banish plump Jack,” goes Falstaff’s famous line to Prince Hal, the future king and savior of England, “and banish all the world.” Is Falstaff a genius, I wonder? Hamlet is the more obvious candidate. Old, clapped-out Falstaff, plump Falstaff, fat Falstaff is the wittiest man Shakespeare or God ever created. Auden even hints that he might be God-in disguise, which rings a bell. Falstaff’s genius for laughter makes him mankind’s unlikely conscience. This celebrated “cause that wit is in other men” makes us more generous human beings.

Judged by moralists and miseries as merely a lowlife “character,” court jester or base clown, he knows more about life than anyone in Henry IV, Part I or Part II , including Prince Hal and his guilt-wracked father, the king. Falstaff knows more than any of us will ever know. The wonder is that he fails to see that Hal will reject him the moment he succeeds to the crown (to become the pragmatic statesman). Falstaff, who’s childless, adores Hal as his surrogate son. His tragic flaw is testament to the fatality of naïve love.

Was ever a rejection more heartbreakingly cruel than Hal’s of Falstaff? In that terrible moment, eternal Falstaff dies on the spot. We die a little with him: not just at the natural injustice of life-we surely saw it coming!-but in mourning for ourselves, for the Falstaffs we once were.

There are lengthier roles than Falstaff’s in Henry IV , but none bigger. He steals the play, as Shylock steals Merchant of Venice in only four scenes. We miss him when he’s not onstage, when he’s not performing for us-for no Shakespeare character needs and loves an audience more. We couldn’t imagine Falstaff alone.

The secret to Mr. Kline’s masterly performance is his restraint. He knows that Falstaff is sufficiently larger than life! He has thickened his voice to suggest the ravages of booze and old age. His paunch is padded so amply that, when reclining, he’s like someone who has fallen over and can’t get up. A born comic, he touches all the notes, including Falstaff’s innate pathos. But for all the heft and weight , Mr. Kline’s lightness brilliantly captures the very essence of Falstaff’s wit.

You must catch Henry IV , if only for him. I regret there are few other good reasons to see Jack O’Brien’s nearly four-hour production, which was originally staged in San Diego eight years ago. Mr. O’Brien doesn’t seem to know the difference between a pub and a palace. The permanently gloomy, vaguely medieval set with its perilously steep stairways is neither fish nor fowl. The design is all-purpose, revealing no purpose. It’s simply there , conveying no visual sense of the king’s palace and seat of power to contrast with Falstaff’s tavern and the low world of the Eastcheap dregs.

If that were all that had gone wrong, we could forgive it. Mr. O’Brien’s opening, frozen image of groups of actors posing on high is a good old-fashioned Victorian tableaux. His idea of staging a scene in a stable reaches a creative low when a bale of hay thuds down from the sky to the pre-recorded sound of a horse neighing. Mr. Kline has to save the pivotal “chimes at midnight” scene from Jeff Weiss’ hopelessly indulged Justice Shallow. Here’s Shakespeare’s great scene about old age and nostalgia, often said to predate Chekhov, and Mr. O’Brien misdirects it as a near farce.

No one is a match for Falstaff (or Mr. Kline), but they must at least be on the same playing field. We have a stew of Shakespearean acting styles among the big ensemble-here broad American, there standard English; here classical, there ludicrously modern. The Prince Hal and future king of Michael Hayden is a soft-centered boy who’s costumed in a little leather bolero jacket, for heaven’s sake. There’s no sense of the ruthless monarch in his lightweight performance, none of the necessary steel and awesomeness.

The excellent Richard Easton is a relief as a combustible, panicking King Henry IV, father to Hal. He hates his wayward, prodigal son so well, he looks as if he’d like to strangle him in frustration. (“See, sons, what things you are!”) Ethan Hawke as Hotspur seizes the territory, but Hotspur is a hot-headed nobleman, not some hysterical punk. Audra McDonald in her Shakespeare debut as Lady Percy is too overheated in her farewell scene with the bare-chested Hotspur. (“Ladies” don’t let their feelings show … well, not in England they don’t.) But Ms. McDonald-a Shakespeare natural, I’d say-saves the day wonderfully in her mourning scene.

The Lincoln Center production by Mr. O’Brien, the longtime director of the Old Globe in San Diego, as well as the director of Hairspray , has combined parts I and II of Henry IV to make a single play. There’s historic precedent for this. With Shakespeare, there’s precedent for anything , including a happy ending to Lear . Orson Welles combined the two plays to make the film Chimes at Midnight . Why not here?

To wish to see both parts of Henry IV -long considered the peaks of Shakespearean achievement-onstage isn’t necessarily to be a scholarly purist. It’s a wish to see the plays as Shakespeare wrote them, a genuine desire to enjoy and appreciate them more : not condensed, re-arranged or severely cut. But Mr. O’Brien thinks otherwise-at least for Americans.

In a staggering announcement, he explained in a recent Times interview that it’s O.K. to stage the two Henry plays separately in England, but not in America. Mr. O’Brien was claiming, in effect, that we wouldn’t get the references here. And so a condensed version-a twofer!-was more than enough for us.

How does it feel to be second-rate? How does it feel to be considered less intelligent than the English?

This isn’t the first time that Lincoln Center has felt it necessary to save New Yorkers from the embarrassment of not being able to understand a play. A few seasons ago, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, which had already played to acclaim in London, was considered too challenging for New Yorkers. The folks at Lincoln Center at least had the grace to change their minds after various protests.

Now we have Mr. O’Brien saying that both parts of Henry IV would be too much for us, too. Or as Falstaff would say: “Is he joking or what ?”

Bet you never even knew who Falstaff was, eh? But so what if you didn’t? What if you don’t get all the Shakespearean references (which Mr. O’Brien’s superior, highly educated English cousins always get)? Permit me to let him in on a very big secret: The English are pretending . They don’t get all the references at all! Not by a long shot. Nor are they weaned on Shakespeare as if it were momma’s milk. I ought to know. I am English! And if, like me, you were taught Twelfth Night as a schoolboy by an English teacher known as “Mr. Goofy,” you would be put off Twelfth Night for life .

But what’s the outcome of the twofer Henry at Lincoln Center? There are no “boring bits” in Shakespeare, only a challenge to be met or not. But what we’re given is inevitably, dispiritingly Shakespeare lite. The production is like a historical romp with smoky battle scene attached. It overemphasizes the Falstaff scenes while basically reducing Shakespeare’s achievement into a father-and-son story. The private grief and public tragedy of a sick, infected England in decay, of a nation’s savage, futile death and rebirth, are lost.

Mr. O’Brien, a word in your ear: You’re not in San Diego anymore. Banish Shakespeare from himself, and you banish the world.