Henry IV, A Historical Play
Seattle Shakespeare’s all-BIPOC project, Drum and Colors, demonstrates amazing visual storytelling in a Shakespeare classic, brewing a mix of Star Wars aesthetics, epic fight choreography and Shakespeare’s lengthy yet time-tested dialogue. It’s 15th century England and King Henry IV has usurped the throne from Richard II and subsequently turned his back on some powerful allies. The Percy family (which includes the Earl of Northumberland and his son Hotspur, known that way for his fierceness and impulsivity), Mortimer, and Owen Glendower (a Welsh Prince), feeling betrayed, start a rebellion against Henry VI and chaos ensues.
The story follows the main dispute between the royal family and the rebellion, while also showing the parallels between young Prince Henry, also known as Hal, and Hotspur. While Hal is busy partying and being an irresponsible person with no desire to rule, Hotspur is leading an entire rebellion and earning a name for himself.
The beginning of the story – which depicts the usurpation and Henry IV’s coronation – is told through shadows centered on a white screen at the back of the stage. A chord and percussion soundtrack accompanies the scene, marking a true auditory experience and a strong opening for the play. Similar sequences throughout the play bring movement to an otherwise static stage, which relies on lighting and context to change scenery.
Another highlight of this production is the movement and fight choreography, created by Stefan Richmond and Rachael Uyeno, respectively. Marching and salutes are nice additions to the royalty setting and work in tandem with the music to create a better experience. The fight scenes during the war are fluid and intense and utilize realistic-looking weapons in confrontations that look almost like dances. The cast members are not professional dancers, but they all commit themselves to the material to “create a sense of war…” and “…embody the violence and invasion of a country with less than a dozen [actors].”
On the other hand, as good as the visual and auditory elements are, complexities in the dialogue make the play hard to follow. Shakespeare enthusiasts will disagree but the script is at times too long and too complex, so much so that some actors have a hard time getting their lines to sound natural. In the same way, some characters’ backstories and relations to other characters are sometimes lost in translation.
Sara Porkalob, who plays Hotspur, is an exception to this, as they manage to make the dialogue their own, adding the right amount of emotion and tone fluctuations in their anger. They stand out in their passion, which translates into a character portrayal that is realistic and lovable. Their counterpart, Prince Hal, is portrayed by Rhys Daly. He is more unassuming yet is firm and powerful in the moments their character needs to be.
Other actors whose performances stand out are Ayo Tushinde as Blunt, Janet Hayatshahi as Lords Northumberland and Westmoreland, and Jesse Calixto as Falstaff. They each bring passion, precision and warmth to the stage.
In their description, director S Franco is said to be “committed to finding an accessible bridge between modern audiences and classical text”, something that translates extremely well in their production of Henry IV. Even though I enjoyed the modern elements the most, I do believe the play manages to bring together classic and modern relatively well. With some clarifications in terms of character backgrounds and some simplification in the text, the production should be easier to assimilate by a larger audience which isn’t already fascinated by Shakespeare.
Seattle Shakes’ Henry IV is a good production in which to relax, as it brings wonder and excitement through their visual storytelling, as well as a good way to support BIPOC people and gender diversity. A Pleasant experience all in all.
*Content Warning: flashing lights, violence, and others. For more warning, refer to the Seattle Shakespeare website.
Henry IV | Center Theatre at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St, Seattle, WA 98109 | March 15 to April 9.
Tickets and content warnings: Drum and Colours: Henry IV (2023) – Seattle Shakespeare Company