Review: Falstaff’s confession is a marathon undertaking

What: Falstaff

Where: Theatre Inconnu

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When: to Oct. 19

Rating: 3-1/2 stars (out of five)

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Who can resist Sir John Falstaff, the greatest rascal in English literature?

Clayton Jevne, actor and artistic director of Theatre Inconnu, sincerely hopes that we cannot. He has created a two-hour solo show showcasing the gluttonous, lusty villain in all his lip-smacking glory.

Falstaff, culled from the pages of Robert Nye’s 1976 novel, presents Sir John as a (somewhat) repentant old man who takes pleasure in recounting his amorous adventures and his roles in historic battles.

Nye’s book, Falstaff, has been adapted for stage several times — the most notable previous version starred British actor David Weston. What impresses in Jevne’s new adaptation is: 1) the sheer feat of memorization; and 2) the raunchiness of Falstaff’s sexual exploits, described in detail so licentious, one can almost see the drool dribbling down his chin.

As Falstaff, a bearded Jevne first appears as a penitent, back to his audience, acknowledging his life of misdeeds. He soon suits up in pantaloons and doublet (beautifully rendered by designer Margaret McKea), dons a feathered cap and buckles on his sword. Then Falstaff, swigging from a tankard, commences with a lascivious account of his conception before launching into an account of a misspent life. We hear about his exploits at the Boar’s Head Tavern, where an errant word earns a sabre swipe to the noggin. We learn of his loss of virginity, the Black Plague, his wartime encounters with Joan of Arc and how Falstaff flung herring into the faces of Scottish invaders.

Incidents from Shakespeare’s plays are recalled, such as Falstaff’s practice of exhorting bribes from well-heeled young men tapped for army service, thus allowing them to evade the draft. He also discusses his tumultuous relationship with Prince Hal, who finally tired of his debauchery. Numerous military campaigns are relived, such as the battles of Shrewsbury, Agincourt and Patay.

This is where Falstaff gets bogged down. Nye’s writing is lively and irreverent; however, so many battles are described, it begins to wear thin. Two hours (excluding intermission) is a long time for a one-man show. The script, as it stands, could do with editing and shaping — it seems 30 minutes could be cut.

For Thursday’s preview show, Jevne — who also directed — performed quite well. In this warts-and-all representation, Falstaff comes across above all as a human being. There were a couple of times toward the end when his delivery slowed somewhat, as though lines were being recalled. That said, the role is absolutely colossal. Part of the show’s appeal is the very fact that Jevne can pull it off at all.

Falstaff is quite different from Jevne’s One-Man Hamlet, another solo tour de force. One-Man Hamlet, 75 minutes long, is a condensed version of Hamlet with the actor playing all the roles. It’s much more whimsical, with its balloons and hand puppets. In this way, Jevne upped the entertainment value.

Falstaff is a more serious piece. It’s possible more varied lighting — and perhaps more music intervals — would add interest and provide audio and visual relief for theatregoers.

The play (and no doubt Nye’s novel) add to the character of Falstaff by making him richer, more complex and, arguably, more human than Shakespeare’s amoral knave. This Falstaff is a study in contractions: vulgar, intelligent, crass, empathetic, deluded, realistic … and above all, pleasure-seeking. It’s a character we continue to love in all its permutations, whether it’s Flashman in George McDonald Fraser’s novels, or Seth Rogan’s parade of amiable slackers.

Shakespeare aficionados, and particularly Falstaff devotees, will enjoy this unusual and curiously impressive outing. Others will find it tough going after the first hour.

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