Thursday, 22 February 2024

The Unspoken Challenge: Falstaff, the True Artistry of Shakespearean Performance

The Unspoken Challenge: Falstaff, the True Artistry of Shakespearean Performance
Friday, 17 November 2023 13:26

"Falstaff's Pivotal Rejection: The Heart-Wrenching Challenge of Shakespearean Performance"

In the vast realm of Shakespearean tragedy, few moments resonate as profoundly as Prince Hal's brutal dismissal of Falstaff in Henry IV Part II: "I know thee not, old man." This shattering rebuff, more than Lear's plea to Cordelia in King Lear's final moments, strikes a chord that reverberates with the cruelty of severed bonds and the inevitability of mortality.

For Falstaff, this pitiless rejection is a soul-crushing blow, a moment of brutal truth that marks the end of an era. The actor portraying Falstaff carries the weight of the entire production on this poignant juncture. If the audience is left winded, their souls echoing the impact, the actor has succeeded—half the job, at least.

Recently, the announcement that Ian McKellen, a titan among Shakespearean actors, will take on the role of the roguish Falstaff in Robert Icke's adaptation of the Henry plays, marked a significant development. Despite having played Lear and Hamlet multiple times, McKellen had previously declined the role, citing a lack of understanding. Falstaff, the embodiment of English anti-authoritarianism, a charismatic rascal with the wisdom of Lear's fool, presented a Herculean challenge, not just in his outsized personality but in the paradoxical nature of his character.

Falstaff exists as a glorious paradox—an avatar of a bygone, merry England, a boozer and a rogue who, with Lear's fool-like wisdom, indulges in cheating and deceiving, spinning absurd tales. McKellen, in his resistance to donning the fat suit essential for the character, seemingly acknowledged the enormity of the challenge. Falstaff is both a charming liar and a heartless thief, yet in his unspoken solitude and deep connection with Prince Hal, he emerges as one of Shakespeare's most poignant and desperate characters.

He is loved, feared, and ultimately, not fully understood. As American director Jack O'Brien aptly describes, Falstaff is a "protean" character, a figure of elusive, magnificent contradictions who continues to "unfold" in the rich tapestry of Shakespearean drama. In this intricate dance of complexity, the actor, like McKellen, faces the daunting task of unraveling Falstaff's enigma—a task that demands not just skill but a profound understanding of the vast, contradictory soul of one of Shakespeare's most enduring characters."

"Falstaff: The Unsung Challenge of a Shapeshifting Tragedy-Comedy"

In the realm of classical acting, Falstaff, the shapeshifting Lord of misrule, has long lingered in the shadows, overshadowed by the likes of Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet. The irony is stark—why has Falstaff, this tragic-comic figure, not earned a place alongside the pinnacle roles that actors measure themselves against? This question echoes in the musings of Antony Sher, who, in his 2014 diary chronicling his experience playing Falstaff for the RSC, wonders why legends like Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Gielgud, and Scofield never sought to embrace the character.

Perhaps, as Sher suggests, they deemed the gouty, waddling sack-addled knight beneath their classical pursuits. The roles of Hamlet and Lear are often considered the zenith of an actor's career, the characters that unveil the profoundest truths about the human condition. Falstaff, however, stands apart, not just due to his physicality but because of the inherent difficulty in capturing his essence.

Orson Welles, who tackled the role in his 1965 film Chimes at Midnight, admitted that Falstaff proved to be the most challenging role of his career. While he believed he captured the essence of Falstaff's "bread and wine" goodness, he struggled to infuse the character with the necessary humor. Michael Gambon, who played Falstaff at the National in 2005, described him as a "deeply duplicitous bastard," an ever-changing actor in every scene, leaving the audience wondering about the real man beneath the facade.

One of the reasons Falstaff remains elusive is his lack of soliloquies and discernable inner life, unlike characters such as Iago or Macbeth. Simon Russell Beale, who portrayed Falstaff in The Hollow Crown, expressed the challenge of understanding Falstaff's true feelings about Prince Hal, noting that he lives an unexamined life.

Great Falstaffs are rare, with Ralph Richardson's portrayal opposite Olivier's Hotspur in 1945 long considered definitive. Antony Sher, too, received acclaim for his magnetic and predatory Falstaff at the RSC, earning some of the best reviews of his career. As Falstaff continues to evade easy categorization and understanding, those who undertake the challenge find themselves grappling with a character that defies easy interpretation—an enigma in the rich tapestry of Shakespearean drama."

"Falstaff: The Irrepressible Anti-Heroic Force"

Falstaff transcends mere characterhood; he is a life force, an anti-heroic figure who captures our hearts like no other. Even Shakespeare himself couldn't confine him, orchestrating his demise in Henry IV Part II—a moment poignantly described by Mistress Quickly—only to be coerced into resurrecting him at the insistence of Queen Elizabeth I in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This comedic twist finds Falstaff in the somewhat undignified role of a repeatedly duped suitor.

More than a character, Falstaff is unkillable, defying definition and possibly proving almost impossible to portray convincingly on stage. Yet, as we embark on this journey into the mysteries of Falstaff, let us raise a glass not only to the character himself but also to Ian McKellen for courageously undertaking the task of unraveling the enigma that is Falstaff. In this homage to the uncontainable knight, we celebrate the enduring allure of one of Shakespeare's most elusive and captivating creations."

"In conclusion, Falstaff stands as a unique and uncontainable force in the realm of Shakespearean drama. More than a character, he embodies a resilient life force that has defied attempts at closure, even by his own creator. Shakespeare's decision to both extinguish and resurrect Falstaff underscores the enduring mystery and complexity of this anti-heroic figure.

As we reflect on Falstaff's uncanny ability to captivate hearts and elude easy definition, we recognize him as a character beyond the constraints of conventional roles. Ian McKellen's courageous attempt to unravel the mysteries of Falstaff adds a new chapter to the ongoing saga of this enigmatic knight.

So, let us raise a glass in homage to Falstaff, celebrating the unkillable, indefinable essence of this timeless character. In toasting McKellen's endeavor, we acknowledge the enduring allure and enduring challenge of Falstaff, a figure whose mysteries continue to captivate and confound."

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