Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sins of the Flesh

(or, Size Matters)

Three sets of notes on Falstaff from the Play Shakespeare discussion forum.

Something I thought about watching the BBC Henry IV (i) was the saying – ‘every fat man has a thin man trying to get out’ – all the talk about size and tons of flesh is less a comment on diet than one on sins.
Quayle was ‘obvious’ in his fatness – made a thing of it in the way fat actors playing the part can’t. It's another, 'All the world's a stage ...' joke.

The BBC’s Merry Wives cast a ‘fat’ Falstaff – and the movement of the body is different. It wasn’t just a matter of the ‘quality’ of the writing (a question of different purposes anyway); it wasn’t quality of performance – it was flesh!

Falstaff’s flesh is metaphorical. You just know when you see the thin actor padded out he will take it off at the end – just as in the Elizabethan religious view, on ‘The Day of Judgement’, the thin good deeds of the man Falstaff will be pulled from the fat sins and weighed against each other in balance.



Who acted Falstaff?

I re-viewed the BBC video and have come to the conclusion it is unlikely Hal was played by Burbage - it is just too small a part.

There are two Big roles - Henry IV and Falstaff.

Anthony Quayle in the BBC played Falstaff really finely - he brought out an intelligence and humanity that isn't often seen when the character is played for laughs - and it did make me question the idea it was a role for Kempe - Bardolf, yes, but Falstaff?

The other thing that popped into my head was the idea of Falstaff's domination of the play - often said to be accidental.

The production managed to balance the two 'father figures' and both dominate Hal - it is almost as if Shakespeare deliberately hides the prince behind these.

Just idle ramblings.

And one more:

The size of the part is one thing that makes me wonder – but that worries me less than the ‘acting’.

Falstaff is funny to watch – in a bitter, black, English humour way – but the acting requires those skills you’d associate with the really big characters – it’s a part ‘that’ll take some acting in the performing of it’ (in the almost immortal words of Bottom). It is not a ‘funny’ – there are several of them around Falstaff – and they last into Henry V – shotten herring (or the hangover after the (k)night before).

It is much deeper than the Twelfth Night drunk, Toby – although there are comparisons to be made.

The other niggle is, as I said in the original post, the idea of the function of Falstaff – he’s there for a didactic purpose, not just entertainment. He balances the King – he makes us question the role models the young prince has – and the role play in the tavern adds another dimension to the comparison.

In part 1 there is also the mirror held up to Hotspur – especially in the honour speech – but he too has his advisers – and I tend to link Falstaff more to them than to Hotspur himself.

Would the Elizabethan theatre use a comedian for this (and they very well might – which should make us rush to inspect all the ‘comedian’ roles)?

The doubling/tripling of parts, the linkages this makes in the minds of the audience and the ‘star’ system all add a dimension to the Elizabethan performances which is (as For -Soothsayer mentions) lost on us.

And if Burbage did play Falstaff – and went on to play Henry V – ohhhh what a tangled knot of implication there! (And what layer of joke in ‘the king hath killed him’ – and he lies in Arthur’s bosom).

I’ll repeat – all idle speculation.