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Lunch Break with Michael Kahn

Early February. A month and a half away from opening night. Michael Kahn stretches out on his sofa in the Barracks Row offices of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It’s a one-hour lunch break before four more hours of rehearsal. He has been rehearsing nonstop for weeks now, on both parts of Henry IV, ten acts and two inductions in all. Actors come and go in shifts, fights and songs are rehearsed, fittings are happening around the clock. It’s a Herculean feat for any director and company, but Kahn looks energized and contented.

DL: How have your thoughts on the play evolved during rehearsal?

MK: I don’t want to jinx anything, but we had a stumblethrough of Part 1 the other day, and it was one of the best first runs of a play that I’ve ever seen. We just have a tremendous ensemble, of gifted newcomers such as Matthew Amendt, who is playing Prince Hal, and of course old friends such as Stacy Keach and Edward Gero. And longtime collaborators such as Kate Skinner, Ted van Griethuysen, Craig Wallace, the list really goes on. Rick Sordelet is doing the fights. Michael Roth, who’s worked at the Stratford festival and with Christopher Plummer all over the country, is composing music. A beautiful Welsh song in Part 1 and some wonderful songs for Justice Shallow and Silence and Falstaff in Part 2. It’s all tremendously exciting, knock on wood.

DL: Did you approach Stacy about playing Falstaff, or did he approach you?

MK: I approached him with the idea, actually. It was ultimately a mutual decision. I always carry on conversations with a large group of people about ideas for shows, and it’s been over 40 years since Stacy first played Falstaff. He was just 27 years old when he played the role in the Park. And when he thought about it, he said yes. The fact that he would take time out from his very busy film schedule—uproot himself from California for six months to work on these plays – I began to get tremendously excited.

Photo of Production Stage Manager Joseph Smelser, Artistic Director Michael Kahn and Clarice Smith in Henry IV rehearsal by Elayna Speight.

DL: What are you working on now in rehearsal?

MK: We’ve begun to work through Part 2, and that’s been fascinating. We’re deep into staging, and it’s a play that’s not as well known as it should be. We’re making discoveries every day. The whole process has been very energizing and engaging. It is great to be back in the room with Shakespeare after what feels like a long time away.

DL: At this stage in your career, what drew you back to these plays?

MK: I had a great success when I did them both in one night, back in the 1994-95 season. And it is easy to see why Part 1 gets produced so frequently. It has swordfights, tavern scenes, beautiful songs, great speeches. It’s like Shakespeare’s greatest hits.

DL: What about Part 2?

MK: I remember that we cut quite a lot out of Part 2 in order to make it fit into one night. Not that I’ve looked back, but a great deal of the rebellion, of those parts of the play that are not the famous scenes that everyone knows, you know, of Hal and Falstaff at the end. I wanted to go back and really investigate that play, to do them both as one big play over two nights, to look at them side by side. Plot-wise, a lot of the early scenes in Part 2 are devoted to recapping the events from the previous play. A lot of what happens at the end is predicted by Hal in his speech in Part 1. “I know you all,” he says in Part 1, and then “I know thee not” in Part 2. But what makes Part 2 such an amazing play is the manner in which it investigates very personal, heartbreaking emotions. Part 2 opens with an Induction from Rumor, “dressed in tongues,” and a lot of the play has the feel of people sitting at home during and after 9/11, waiting to hear from friends, getting one disparate piece of news after another. I think it is extraordinary how Shakespeare, in the midst of these sweeping, epic plays, focuses not on poetry or grandeur, but on the raw human emotions. How agonizing must it be for Northumberland to hear about the success and life of his son, and then to hear of Hotspur’s death, confirming his worst of fears. And also tremendous guilt, survivor’s guilt. I’m also interested in the images of sickness, of disease, that run through Part 2. They are everywhere in that play.

Photo of Matthew Amendt ( Prince Hal), Edward Gero (King Henry IV) and Artistic Director Michael Kahn in rehearsal by Elayna Speight.

DL: How so?

MK: When we first see Falstaff, he appears with a walking stick. He is so charming that it’s easy to overlook his troubles: he’s worried about disease, he has just sent his urine to the doctor, he is suffering from the gout, his credit is ruined, even though he’s the most famous man in London after the Battle of Shrewsbury. No one will accept his bond as security, and he begs for a thousand pounds—throughout the play— from nearly everyone he meets. “A good wit will make use of anything,” he says. “I will turn diseases to commodity.” Everywhere you look in this play you encounter these themes of mortality, of sickness, of time, that ultimate four-letter word. Falstaff is haunted throughout the play by the Lord Chief Justice, this very smart man who has his number. It seems to signify something larger about life itself. Part 2 is about old people dying, and a new order taking its place. And then of course there’s Hal, who is very different in Part 2, very sad and serious. He allows himself to almost get seduced back into the drunken, Eastcheap lifestyle in the play before becoming the King he’s meant to be. He eventually takes on this huge responsibility of being King, he begins to care for his subjects in a legal sense, and it involves a tremendous personal sacrifice. He has always thought from his own point of view, but by the end of Part 2 we see him learning to empathize with his subjects, putting himself in their place. He becomes an adult, at a great personal cost.

DL: How do you picture these two plays working together side by side?

MK: I’m not sure, because I haven’t yet staged everything and it’s such a massive project. I know that I want to somehow end up with Falstaff alone onstage. The play really comes down to the relationship between Hal and Falstaff for me. Hal wants him to be better, to get better, and he also at the same time wants everyone to know that he is not the same as he once was. That final scene in Part 2 is one of the most magnificent and difficult scenes in Shakespeare, in my opinion. The entire stage is filled with people, and they’re all watching, just like everyone in the audience, waiting to see what Hal is going to do. How will I end up staging it? [Smiles] I think people will just have to come and see.

Photo of Matthew Amendt (Prince Hal) and Artistic Director Michael Kahn in rehearsal by Elayna Speight.

Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate and Resident Dramaturg at STC. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.
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