Identifying the heart of William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 1,” director Priscilla Lindsay, professor of School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said, “Power, how you take it, how you keep it.”
And the cast advises you to leave your thesaurus at home; come to the Power Center this weekend to hear the clang of swords and see ever-shifting power dynamics as characters travel from tavern to battlefield and back again.
“Henry IV” provides a slice of English history, as it tracks Prince Hal’s rise to victory when the vengeful Hotspur challenges his inheritance of the throne. I sat down to chat with SMTD seniors Robert O’Brien and Caleb Foote, who play Prince Hal and Hotspur, respectively. They shared a hope that the 400-year-old play would be accessible.
“A lot of people come into Shakespeare thinking it’s very wordy,” O’Brien said.
“A snoozefest?” Foote interrupted, laughing.
“Like they need a thesaurus or something. I want them to leave thinking, ‘I understood that,’ ” O’Brien said.
O’Brien plays Hal, the rebellious young son of King Henry and heir to the throne who, despite his noble status, chooses to surround himself with a lower-class ruffians who spend their time imbibing, swearing, gambling — causing an overall ruckus.
Although the setting of the play has not been tampered with, the cast and crew have taken some liberties with the production. Lindsay, the director, decided to keep the play in its original 15th century time period.
“I’ve managed to work a number of women into the show,” she said. “One of the big things we did was change the Duke of Worcester to the Duchess of Worcester. She takes no prisoners.”
Aside from a minor cut or two, the script has not been seriously abridged. The physical nature of the play allows it to move along quickly and dynamically.
“Something quite unique to this production is the amount of stage combat there is — a lot of work with weaponry,” O’Brien said.
“Something that a lot of us have to do is keep up with our condition physically because we’re running through these massive fights, and after the fights, we’re expected to continue these huge pieces of text while trying to connect those into the breath,” Foote explained.
“It’s physical. It’s cerebral. It’s really a test to everything that we’ve got,” O’Brien said.
The timelessness of “Henry IV” has energized the cast, as they move beyond parsing the complex language and logistical decisions to a place of creativity and playfulness in more boisterous comedic moments that balance the play’s historical gravity.
“We’ve crossed a threshold of learning the technicalities and learning lines and all of that stuff, and now we’re just all together having a blast on stage — you can’t let that drop. Feeling that has been the most invigorating part of the process,” O’Brien said.
Doing a play filled with stage combat has provided a space for deep exploration of swordplay, which characterizes period-specific violence.
“If you were to put it into modern day and someone were to pull out a gun and blame somebody, the scene’s over,” said Lindsay.
Fight director Robert Najarian has worked closely with the cast on crafting complicated moments of combat.
“There’s been a wide variety of physical confrontations in this play, from robberies to little tussles in the tavern to mass battles,” he said. “Shakespeare provides such a breadth of experience, especially with moments of violence.”
The production seeks to explore universal themes and questions on stage, which audiences can relate to despite a multi-century gap.
“What is leadership? What is honor? What makes a good leader?” said Lindsay, referring to the questions the play considers.
“It’s going to be relevant because the issues are still the same. It’s all about power. It’s all about the struggle between fathers and sons,” she said.
The central father-son dynamic of the play is between King Henry, played by SMTD senior Matt Provenza.
“The father-son conflict I think applies to college-aged men and women, now more than in any other part of our lives,” said Provenza.
Beyond depiction of English history and struggle for power, “Henry IV” is a coming-of-age story that questions character agency over identity.
“Something I really want the audience to come away from this with is man’s propensity to change. I want people to see that anyone can come around,” Provenza said. “It is possible to assume a new person at some point in your life and be the person you’ve always wanted to be or perhaps fulfill a destiny that is perhaps better than the one you’re living now.”
The fancy swordplay and elegant language is more than a depiction of physical grace or impressive intellect; it intends to provide the audience with a context for the violence.
“I do want people to be thrilled by what they see on stage, but at the same time know that all of this hopefully thrilling stuff has consequences,” Najarian said. “We’re not just doing this to be like, ‘Hey it’s fun to play with swords,’ but show that, when you are violent towards people, there are consequences to relationships that were once awesome and then fail.”