If not all young people think they invented punk and disaffection, just ask their parents; it's even money that they do. But if conservatives like Charles Murray (whose Coming Apart just hit the bookstands last week) can still kid themselves that the cure for societal alienation and decay lies in the simple reversal of a few social policies from a mere half-century ago, they should be forced to sit through the two blockbuster productions that graced the region's stages this past week.
It's hard to imagine theatrical bedfellows much stranger than PlayMakers Rep's production of The Making of a King: Henry IV and Henry V and the professional tour of a musical made from a Green Day album, American Idiot The Musical, that Broadway Series South and North Carolina Theatre brought to Raleigh last week. (Our review of that show is on the Indy's arts blog, Artery.) But the striking similarities between Johnny, the protagonist in American Idiot, and Henry's Prince Hal go far beyond costume designers Andrea Lauer and Jennifer Caprio's grungy initial choices for their garb.
Apparently lacking anything greater to believe in or build toward, both go trolling through the urban underworld in search of fun, friends—and replacements for fathers who've been absentees. The ones they find, St. Jimmy and Sir John Falstaff, are disasters, amoral low-grade (but high-style) criminals devoted to little more than good times, guarding their investments, minimizing the risks of their chosen trade—and the copious use of recreational intoxicants. Finally, Hal and Johnny must both be threatened with the loss of everything before they confront their situations and begin to turn their lives around. Up to a point, they're nearly brothers in arms.
The early parallels between the two are enough to remind us that at-risk youth are not a new subspecies that suddenly started cropping up in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Nor did they land, like aliens, among the highest echelons of English aristocracy at the dawn of the 15th century. It's passing strange that, of all people, conservatives would forget that the legacy of the troubled child dates back, at least, to Cain. I don't think they can blame him on the liberals.
But for a production whose title promises the disclosure of such a process, The Making of a King noticeably short-changes a step or two. Given the fact that this production condenses Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II into a single three-hour production, it's tempting to call such a conclusion foregone and be done with it—except that companies have been merging the pair since the early 1600s.
There is nimble enough stitchery in co-directors Mike Donahue and Joseph Haj's adaptation, which intermingles scenes from parts one and two to maintain balance between dramatic tension and comic relief. Here only one civic uprising breaks out between Prince Hal's father, Henry IV, and those who initially ushered him into power—a time-saving device that history's original cast did not prefer. And purists will no doubt quibble on which side of the editing knife specific plot points in this redaction fall.
But most troubling would be the compression of dramatic distance, from a Hal who never truly seems that dissolute to start with to the austere, chill figure we encounter at the end of Henry IV. Few productions have been willing to fully acknowledge the implications of a young adult of better means who chooses the low-life company of a cynical, drunken cutpurse over the supposedly higher-minded nobility. With all respect, this iteration doesn't number among them.
Shawn Fagan is directed here to keep Hal implausibly clean: His debaucheries remain almost entirely hypothetical. And so we must we accept a Hal who, for all his scenes in a bar, is never drunk, or even buzzed. This one never has a hangover. If Hal ever were more believably disaffected than we find him here, he would likely be trying in his first monologue to convince himself, and not his audience, that he actually could throw off his rogueries and make whole a broken faith with his family's ruling class whenever he chose to.
In the absence of such internal conflict, a flatter interpretation prevails—and dramatic doubt is vanquished at the end of Henry IV's second scene. When scenes that trace Hal's gradual reconciliation with honor and responsibility are removed as well (including a significant Part II exchange with the Lord Chief Justice), we don't see a prospective king in transformation. We have, instead, a king that apparently never needed that much making in the first place.
By comparison, Henry V showcases this talented cast's versatility. Jeffrey Blair Cornell's title role in Henry IV contrasts with his irascible, cowardly Pistol. Michael Winters animates the Chorus after his earlier, irreverent Falstaff.
Cody Nickell's boiling Hotspur cedes to his verbose Fluellen. Kelsey Didion inhabits a feisty Lady Percy and Katherine, the French king's daughter. And, as usual, no one surpasses Ray Dooley, whose assays the grim Worcester and the bumpkin Shallow, before channeling suave film actor Charles Grey as Burgundy. Matt Garner's histrionic Dauphin provides considerable comic relief.
If Fagan's Henry V still sounds too confident while bargaining with God and chatting, incognito, with the troops, he's convincing when he rallies them. True, Mark Lewis' atmospheric soundscapes help, providing the thump of doom as traitors learn their fates, brave men cringe in battle, and a mini coup de théâtre literally brings the curtain down on the French aristocracy.
Since Shakespeare's epilogue has been preserved here, the final scene of Henry's peace treaty and upcoming marriage to Katherine suddenly goes still, as Winter's Chorus reminds us: In one generation, all will be undone. Appropriately enough for this play, the final note remains one of disaffection.