Monday, June 23, 2014

Department of New Old News: Falstaff

This one just came over the mountains by pony express, a couple of years late.  The subject is "The Hollow Crown," BBC-2's rendition of Shakespeare's "second trilogy"*--the Henry plays from the late 1590s, which (among other blessings) give us Mistress Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, the stews of Eastcheap and their presiding genius, Falstaff himself.    I paid no attention at the time--I'm not sure I ever heard of them--but Mrs. Buce churned them to the top of the Netflix crew and I must say that (in the words of the Michelin man) they are definitely worth a detour.  A scan of the reviews shows that they received plenty of praise on their first showing, not least for their place in a larger context.  That is: apparently fans still remember--and smart from--the all-of-Shakespeare series from the 70s.  Over time that series has developed a reputation (not entirely deserved, in my view) as the great clinker in the highway of dramatic evolution; the new ones are hailed as retrieving the Bard from the clutches of mediocrity (or worse).

I do think they are good, though I wouldn't crown them with the laurel of perfection.  One or more reviewers also remark on the degree to which they are "faithful" to the original, but that doesn't seem quite right to me either.  For one thing, I don't see how you can be entirely "faithful" to a play originally  produced in a closed theatre when your television landscape extends to the entire British Isles.  More: it's clear that director Richard Eyre, however respectful he may be of the script (and he is respectful) still wants to put his own reading on the original material.

Which brings me to my particular point here--Falstaff, as rendered by Simon Russell Beale.  The Brits practically hold their breath at the mention of Beale's name and may even deserve his reputation.  Falstaff is usually remembered as the world's great comic part, and Beale has played Spamalot.

And here's the thing: Beale's (Eyre's) Falstaff is not the least way comic: Beale throws away or sits on (with his massive girth) virtually every memorable comic line in the play. This may not be exactly revolutionary but I suspect for most viewers, it is eye-opening. We usually see Falstaff as a scam: Beale's Falstaff is a scoundrel: a dark and disturbing presence fit not merely to make mischief among his friends but serious trouble for the whole realm.

But here's another funny thing: this darker interpretation--every bit of it is supported by the script.  We do see Falstaff in raucous merrymaking at the tavern. We also see him as a highwayman on the road from Rochester.  We see him as a "false honor"soldier, claiming credit for the Prince's own kill.  Worst: we see him taking payoffs to excuse recruits from service in the military.  This Falstaff is not at all a pleasant man.  When Doll Tearsheet says:

Well, fare thee well: I have known thee thesetwenty-nine years, come peascod-time; but anhonester and truer-hearted man,--well, fare thee well.
…all you can think is "boy, she sure knows how to pick 'em."  It's a startling performance.  I'm not sure it is entirely right but I can see why he/they chose to play it this way, and for (I suspect) almost any viewer, it will make the understanding of Falstaff richer and more nuanced than it was before.` 

*Oh. Right.  Plus Richard II.  Yes, that one was good, too.

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