Falstaff - The Long & The Short Of ItMonday, August 30, 2010
Guest blog by Errol Durbach
Adaptation: The Long and the Short of it
Why adapt the two parts of Henry IV into a single play called Falstaff? One reason is the need for accessibility — to make these plays readily available to modern audiences, who seldom have the opportunity to see the second part of Henry IV, a play with some extraordinary scenes stuck in a rather stodgy and repetitive text. But adaptation comes with penalties, the most obvious of which is to cut and condense the texts without radical damage to their themes and characters. Shortening 7 hours of playing time to 2.5 hours entails a certain amount of violence; and the best an adaptor can hope for is that the shape of the play — its “through-line” and major themes — remain distinct and undamaged.
But, of course, there are other restraints imposed upon the adaptor. One of these is budgetary. At Bard-on-the-Beach, each production must work with a company of no more than 15 actors (doubling and tripling the roles, as need be). So of the 50 characters in the two parts of Henry IV (not to mention the attendant lords and the spear carriers), an adaptor has to make drastic cuts to the cast-list and select only those whom he can accommodate to the action. In other words, its not only the dialogue that has to be cut to the bone, but those who speak it.
Another consideration is that Henry IV belongs in the middle of a sequence of History Plays, preceded by Richard II and followed by Henry V. This means that continuity becomes a crucial factor — complicated by the fact that Richard II was staged in the previous season, and that the vital plot elements of that earlier staging need to be incorporated into the current production as a form of exposition. So space needs to be made, somewhere, for a restaging of the central incidents of Richard II — King Henry’s usurpation of the throne, and his murder of Richard. And, of course, the adaptor has to ensure a consistency of character-treatment, especially in the case of Prince Hal, who needs to evolve from a delinquent into the heroic Henry V. This was a difficulty for me. I loathed the Machiavellian politics of Hal, and I thought that his war-mongering in Henry V was politically indecent. But my version of the Henry IV plays had to be in keeping with the vision of the directors, and it was necessary to keep within the constraints of character that they wished to develop. All art — especially theatrical art — is collaboration. And compromise is an essential aspect of adaptation.
Adaptation also produces huge gaps that need to be filled. In Falstaff I was obliged to fill them with some decidedly un-Shakespearean material: my own (slightly irreverent) scripting of a Chorus who took the audience from place to place, and time to time, with occasional commentary on the situation. Another compromise, one I was happy to follow, was to allow the actors to restore some of the lines — but not too many — that I felt obliged to cut. So we were able to observe a 2.5 hour performance time, while accommodating some of the actors’ needs to retain what they thought were vital lines.
But adaptation is not all compromise and restraint. Sculpting Falstaff out of the mass of material I had to work with, also gave me the opportunity to shape the play in a personal way, deconstruct two major histories and reconstruct them as I wished, even to the extent of rearranging the climax and giving Falstaff the last word. At the end of my adaptation, there is a very modern “violation” of traditional Shakespearean reality. With the director’s consent, I arranged for Falstaff to die onstage (using the reportage from Henry V) — only to have him rise again from his deathbed and deliver his famous eulogy to good sherry sack. So my adaptation ends with a rousing toast “To life!”, which I hoped might counteract the horrible world of political scheming and the inevitable drift towards the death-dealing invasion of France to follow.
Seen here, above, Dean Paul Gibson in the Bard on the Beach play Falstaff adapted by Errol Durbach, second picture. The third picture is of director Glynis Leyshon.