Creating The Boar’s Head

Stuart Bousel talks about boiling down and weaving together three plays by Shakespeare.

When one is taking three very long, epic Shakespeare plays and has to cut them down to a seventy-five minute drama, one goes through a real struggle to decide what to keep and what to cut. This is particularly true when one is working with Henry IV and Henry V, which when combined is roughly nine hours of material, at least six of which is really, really good, and feels like it’s thoroughly indispensable.

What has always drawn me to these plays is the broad view they offer of English life in the early 15th century. Because the central figure, Hal, is the Crown Prince of Wales, he offers a window into the courtly world of politics, arranged marriages, military campaigns and espionage, but unlike many of Shakespeare’s other royals, Hal moves amongst the common people, passing his time at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, an outer district of medieval London, consorting with all levels of the citizenry of his kingdom. Through Hal we get the rankless aristocrat Ned Poins, whose second brother status has reduced him to a workingman’s prospects, as well as the business-class Mistress Quickly, who may be one of the first examples in English literature of an unmarried, independent businesswoman. More unsavory types also abound- the petty thieves Bardolph and Pistol, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Hal, without ever disguising his true rank, mixes amongst these lesser folk with great familiarity: joking with them, drinking with them, and essentially becoming one of the family.

Most important, of course, is his relationship with John Falstaff, the jovial drunkard and penniless knight who acts not only as friend to Hal, but teacher, antagonist, tempter and surrogate father. Not that Hal lacks a father: Henry IV is a formidable presence in the play, looming in the background, always, symbolic of the heavy responsibilities that are an inevitable, inescapable part of Hal’s future. The tension between these two oppositional paternal forces, and the lifestyles they represent, is the source of much of the dramatic conflict in the Henry IV plays and, to me, was the principal arc to preserve when setting about an adaptation.

Because I was adapting these plays for a bar, I knew I wanted to keep the world of the bar as foregrounded as possible and hence the biggest cuts came with the court scenes and by proxy, those episodes which occurred on the battlefields, i.e. the bulk of Henry IV part 2 and Henry V‘s action. Not only did these scenes go, but some of the wars did too. There are three major military conflicts depicted over the course of the three plays, but in ours there is only one: Hal now goes to France as Prince Hal, not King Henry V, and he is crowned after he returns, victorious, to England. My reasons for this were entirely practical: 1) it made for a more easily identifiable enemy- France- and took the threat of war overseas; 2) it allowed me to appropriate the Chorus speeches from Henry V to better covey leaps of time and other narrative gaps. One unforseen bi-product was that it also allowed me to essentially create a new character: Alice.

Alice exists in Henry V as the handmaiden of Princess Katherine, Hal’s nominal love interest. I knew I wanted to keep the scenes involving Kate not just because it would provide us another female role (the women in these plays, though deftly drawn, are not particularly prominent or plentiful), but also because they contain some of the funniest and most charming material in this trilogy. When the decision came to make Kate a Frenchwoman living in England at the time of the war (and thus trapped there), along with it came the fashioning of Alice, first as Kate’s friend, then as a staff member of the Boar’s Head (“Alice!” has the same cadence as “Francis!”, the name of a waiter from the original text with whom Alice was combined), and finally as the narrator who would allow us to bring in the battles that make Prince Hal into King Henry, without having to bring in confusing sub-plots or numerous other characters like Hotspur, Douglas and the King of France. If along the way we suddenly had a female lead to boot, that didn’t hurt matters. A story about men, fathers and sons, kings and commoners, is perhaps even more interesting when told from a woman’s perspective.

With the reduction of the battles another interesting thing happened: Henry IV became, though a smaller role, a more approachable one, if you ask me. His significance as king, while still present, is now better balanced by his significance as a father. From the beginning I knew I wanted to bring him into the bar, at the very least at the end of the famous scene where Falstaff and Hal each take their turn at playing King. I’ve always thought it would be delicious to have Henry see not just what his subjects thought of him, but his son, while also witnessing the antics of the man who is, essentially, competing with him for his place as father. Having the King show up in the bar, unaccompanied, to confront his truant child is chilling in a way that wasn’t possible in the original play because there’s always been a distance between us and the King, and him and every other character in the play. Now, for this instant, in this version, he’s most or less just a man, standing in the room with us, reacting to what he’s seen, not just had reported to him, beyond the safety of his usual stomping ground, unguarded, in the thick of the moment.

The shaping of the text has gone fairly smoothly from there, with lines coming and going in rehearsal, a speech added or a scene moved here and there so that the story could focus and build around Hal’s journey from slumming rich boy to reluctant military hero to dutiful son and finally, responsible grown up able to shoulder the burdens of being king. Along the way I tried to give a moment to each of the supporting characters that flesh out Hal’s world, whether it was the bombast of Pistol, the alienation of Ned Poins, the vulgarity of Doll Tearsheet, or the charm and elegance of Katherine.

The result is something that feels quite modern, though the language still be Shakespeare’s, and though the story is an old one, the play almost feels new. Or perhaps not new, so much as freshly relevant. When Bennett Fisher, who plays Hal, and I first tossed around the idea of doing this I remember him saying, “In the end, it’s about how you can party all you want, but eventually the lights come on and you know you’re going to have to deal with tomorrow, hangover or no hangover” and I think that reading is essentially true, and an essential human experience as well.

We all, at some point or another, seek to escape our lot in life, evade our responsibilities, or just try to have fun without worrying about the repercussions. You don’t have to be a king to understand the weariness of Henry IV as he sits up nights wondering what his son is up to, just as you don’t have to be an errant prince to know what it’s like to disappoint your parents, indluge people you secretly think aren’t worth your time, or take on tasks you’d rather not be bothered with. The same is true of the supporting characters. Each is dealing with something all of us have dealt with: growing past a friend, or being the friend grown past; struggling with an attraction to someone we know we shouldn’t like; looking to get ahead, or get away with something, or just get our job done so we can go home at the end of the day. This is the stuff of life.

Thus, though many particulars of these familiar characters have changed to suit our Boar’s Head (the one exception being Falstaff, whose titanic presence is pretty unreducable even if you do cut half his lines) the spirit of the play remains quintessentially Shakespearean in its panoramic depiction of the humaness of all people regardless of their position in life or destiny. Which is why, as cliche as it is to say it, The Boar’s Head isn’t Henry’s story, or Falstaff’s, or even Hal’s, so much as everybody’s story.

It’s really just another night at the bar.

-Stuart Bousel

THE BOAR’S HEAD performs on May 16, 17, 23, 30 and 31 at 8pm each night in the Cafe Royale Bar (800 Post, at Leavenworth). Admission is free, but arrive early to ensure a seat.

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2 comments on “Creating The Boar’s Head

  1. […] Adapting The Boar’s Head « San Francisco Theater Pub: When taking three very long, epic Shakespeare plays and cutting them down to a seventy-five minute drama one goes through a real struggle to decide what to keep and what to save. This is particularly true when one is working with Henry IV and Henry V, which when combined is roughly nine hours of material. […]

  2. […] process (you can read about it, in regards to my Shakespeare adaptation, “The Boar’s Head”, on this very blog), but the adaptation process for RAT GIRL has been especially interesting since it’s technically […]

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