Theatre Review: ‘Henry IV, Part 1’ at Shakespeare Tavern

Photos by Daniel Parvis

The Shakespeare Tavern is currently running the Bard’s “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part II” in repertory through Oct. 21, but you must check their website carefully for performance dates.

“Henry IV, Part 1” (the current play) is a “history play”; it’s the second in Shakespeare’s tetralogy dealing with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – remember?).

If this sounds a bit scholarly, please don’t be put off. We take them as Shakespeare did—one at a time.

I feel much gratitude toward the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, for I have recently been treated to my first live production of “Richard II” (outstanding) and now my first “Henry IV, Part 1,” and it is likewise superb, and a deeper, richer play than “Richard II.” Many scholars feel Shakespeare truly came into his own with “Henry IV” (from now on that means Part 1). It is directed by the Tavern’s distinguished Jeff Watkins.

“Henry IV” is funny, wise, witty, adventuresome, full of thoughtfulness and gleeful abandon. It has everything. I never realized it until now. For example, there is Falstaff (J. Tony Brown), the original free spirit, a rascal, a ne’er-do-well, and one of the four most intelligent people in Shakespeare’s canon, according to Harold Bloom, Shakespearean scholar par excellence (the other three are Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra). For pure wit, Falstaff is unsurpassed, just as Hamlet is for pure intelligence.

As the program notes, King Henry IV (Maurice Ralston) has two pressing problems as the play opens: there is rebellion in the ranks, especially in the person of Harry Percy, called Hotspur (Chris Hecke). He is aptly named; he has a fiery and impatient mind, obsessed with a zeal for military honor which is not far from vanity, a perfect specimen of the romantic soldier. Mr. Hecke’s performance is a revelation; his Hotspur is dynamic, romantic, and ultimately very moving.

Jonathan Horne and J. Tony Brown

The King’s second problem is Hal, his son, also known as Harry, the Prince of Wales (Jonathan Horne). Hal is spending much time with rogues and tavern dwellers like Falstaff. But Hal is complex: We come to realize that he is deliberately posing as a waster so that when the time comes, he may effectively perplex his critics and begin his reign by surprising his subjects. Hal is no fool.

But his and Falstaff’s love for each other’s company is not a pose. Their love is sort of a misplaced paternal affection, if you will, but their fascination with each other is real. Falstaff is a unique being who transcends almost all our labeling of human sin and error. He is outrageous and irresistible: “What is honor? A word. What is in the word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.” You can’t out-think Falstaff, so don’t even try. Mr. Brown is perfectly cast in the role and gives the performance of his life (for this viewer). He is sly, seductive, maddening, and triumphant.

Mr. Ralston’s Henry is powerful, incisive, and intelligent. When he convinces his son Hal that it’s time to get his act together, he becomes every father reading his son the riot act. Indeed, he makes the audience sit up straighter so we don’t miss a word!

Mr. Horne’s performance as Hal is not to be missed. His Hal is earnest, dashing, formidable, and ultimately even more complex than we thought. When a certain character dies at the end (can’t reveal everything), Mr. Horne is heartbreaking. This actor continues to thrill audiences.

I have only given you a smidgen of the plot; it’s quite long and complex, but with marvelous clarity. There is a large cast here that I can only mention; they deserve much more, but here are some of them: Sean Kelley, Mary Ruth Ralston, Charlie T. Thomas, Troy Willis, Drew Reeves, Mary Russell, Sean Kelley, Jeffrey Zwartjes, and others. There’s a very large deposit of talent here; trust me.

Thanks to Drew Reeves for his thrilling fight choreography—it’s almost scary.

The Tavern’s production of “Henry IV, Part 1” is a rare opportunity to experience the genius of Shakespeare. You won’t be disappointed.

For tickets and information, visit

Manning Harris

Manning Harris the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.