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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 17, No. 6. April 22, 1953

Henry IV—Part I — A Review by Peter Dronke

page 3

Henry IV—Part I

A Review by Peter Dronke

Now that the last of the Strafford Company's plays is over, and the Company itself is already playing in Australia, many people must feel there is something of a gap in their lives, that everyday life has become rather empty by contrast. Why is this? Not merely, I think, because it has been exciting theatre, wonderful acting, good entertainment, or because of any other of the many accidental reasons; but rather because, for some time during the course of these plays, even if only for a moment, we were able to forget these accidentals, these things with which criticism is usually concerned, and could be affected essentially—simply as people.

I think that for some time everyone was taken out of himself and vitally caught up in a situation outside himself in a reality so much more down to tin-tacks, and therefore so much more worth while, than any we could experience on our own so that by giving ourselves up to it we could make ourselves open to a truth or to a mystery in a real, personal way. The learned have called this process "catharsis," or, referring to those in the play, "peripety" and "recognition" and so forth, and have long debated what these terms mean—but this is what they really boil down to. It has often struck me that the two words "ecstacy" and "existence" have the same peculiar root meaning of "standing outside." Doesn't that imply that to achieve a heightened, ecstatic, real existence one must stand outside oneself and take one's stand within a worthwhile objective reality, such as the dramatic situations that have been given to us? I would seriously suggest that the value of these plays (and perhaps of all art) is to bring about that fuller existence, to make people more real as persons, to demand that emptying of self, that is like a religious sacrifice, and that has brought on the gap and the feeling of emptiness with which this digression began.

What I should like to say now about "Henry IV" is almost unqualified praise. The plays have been so different, and each so good of Its kind, that comparisons of performances may not be just, but I felt that in "Henry IV" there were more outstanding individual performances than in the other plays, and that this production came perhaps closest to the essence of Shakespeare's play—certainly it succeeded in sharply defining that immense variety of people who, as Mr. Quayle said, bring the spirit of England across the stage. This staging was made possible by the brilliant set which proved what good theatre Shakespeare's variety of scenes and scene-changes can be, if, us here, producers are willing to stage them as Shakespeare intended, and are not fettered to the naturalistic stage.

I have only space left for a few words on the acting. Anthony Quayle's Falstaff came up to my greatest expectations, bringing home to me dynamically all that this wonderful character of Shakespeare's implies. It also showed me how much the art of reading a play silently must be learnt, and how inadequate such reading usually is for reading by myself I could never have" visualised Falstaff as I am now convinced he must be. To describe him, as the greatest critics have tried, would be pointless—but only a performance such as this shows the force of those descriptions, and, even more, what they leave unsaid. This applies similarly to Keith Witchell's Hotspur—as we were shown he is certainly a far more complex character [unclear: than] "a verray parat gentil knight." His stammer fitted his impetuousness perfectly. For those who want a textual or historical Justification for it, here it is: it is mentioned in "Henry IV" (Part II) that Hotspur had some peculiarity of speech. This has left actors and producers guessing, but some, as here, have taken a clue from Hotspur's last sentence—as he dies, he says: "No, Percy, thou art dust, and food for, which "Prince Hal completes, saying "For worms, brave Percy." So it has been ingeniously assumed that Hotspur could not finish his sentence because he could not pronounce "w."