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JEFFREY BROWN: In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff is fat and lord of his realm, a London tavern.
ACTOR: How could this stack of sugar — we know that…
JEFFREY BROWN: In a production at New York’s Lincoln Center, Beaumont Theater, actor Kevin Kline makes the most of every moment.
ACTOR: True and perfect imam of life. It’s the better part of valor is discretion.
JEFFREY BROWN: He’s known for his film roles. Sophia’s Choice, and comic terms, like his Oscar winning performance in “A Fish Called Wanda.” But he’s also been one of this country’s leading Shakespearean stage actors.
ACTOR: To be or not to be.
JEFFREY BROWN: Playing Hamlet and many other roles. Now, in a performance receiving rave reviews, Kline has grown out and whitened his hair and beard, added some padding, and taken on one of the great characters in theater history.
Jack Falstaff is part truth teller, amid the hypocrisy, rivalry and open warfare for the throne of England, as he leads young Prince Harry into a life of drink and debauchery. In a famous scene he defends himself before the prince in a mock trial.
ACTOR: Sweet Jack Falstaff. Kind Jack Falstaff. True Jack Falstaff. Valiant Jack Falstaff. And therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him. My Harry is company. Banish plump Jack, banish all the word.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Kline, welcome.
KEVIN KLINE: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Banish plump Jack, the famous line goes, and banish all the world. Tell me what you saw in the world of Jack Falstaff.
KEVIN KLINE: He is the center of his own universe a very big way. So that it’s almost, he is bombastic, and he is free, he is subversive and outrageous. And there’s a wonderful freedom, he can do anything.
JEFFREY BROWN: As I was reading the play I find myself laughing out loud at times at the way the characters around Falstaff addressed him, the insults heaped on each other. I started writing them down.
KEVIN KLINE: I did too once, let me just see how many descriptions there are of him, and I just, I was getting writers cramp by the second scene.
JEFFREY BROWN: Here’s a few that I wrote down. Yee fat kidneyed rascal, this huge hill of flesh, my sweet creature of Bombast, and affectionately my sweet beef.
KEVIN KLINE: I think it inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest, he’s famous for these lists, sometimes will go through a list of opprobrium, and it just seems effortless. They’re powerful words, words can you not only understand intellectually, but you can sort of feel from the sound of the word what it’s expressing.
JEFFREY BROWN: What in the end was your way into Falstaff?
KEVIN KLINE: I would hope that I could not articulate it. You get in there and you have this wonderful text and you get on your feet and start moving around and saying these words and then you find out in the doing what those words mean to you and what those actions mean to you.
JEFFREY BROWN: When you have such a larger-than-life character, it must be easy to overplay him?
KEVIN KLINE: Mm-hmm.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, how do you keep from overplaying?
KEVIN KLINE: There’s no such thing. I think if you, if it’s fake, if you don’t mean it, then it’s overplaying. But if you mean it, there’s no size that you can assign to it that says, “well, no, that’s too much.”
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean, “if you mean it?”
KEVIN KLINE: Well, I remember a director said when we were doing — I was doing a movie — and he said, I thought very aptly, “There’s no such thing as too big as long as it’s full.” If you mean it, it’s not too much.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now because this is one of the great characters in world theater, many great actors have taken it on over the years. Do you find ways to make it your own somehow?
KEVIN KLINE: You have to try to make it your own and you have to try to obliterate your memory of others, while, at the same time, stealing what you like, resonates and what you think might work for you.
If you steal, but you graft it on to yourself and it’s not really you, it’s going to ring false in some way. But if you steal and you’ve appropriated it because it resonates and because you actually, somewhere in your core, if one has one of those, it’s, it actually reflects how you feel about a particular line or a particular moment or scene, then it’s no longer, it’s no longer stolen, it is now shared. (Laughs)
JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’ve been doing Falstaff for some weeks now. Are you able to define Kevin Kline’s Falstaff?
KEVIN KLINE: No. No, I wish I could. There are sometimes when I think, “What the hell am I doing?” You know, if you’re distracted and you haven’t had enough time to prepare for that particular performance, you’re going to, “What am I doing here? I don’t know, just do it.” But I think, I hope, that that’s a virtue. In other words, if you could explain it. That’s why I don’t read reviews or…
JEFFREY BROWN: Never? You don’t read reviews at all?
KEVIN KLINE: I might at the end of the run, if I’m still curious. But once someone has given their interpretation of your interpretation, once they’ve put it into words and written it out, it’s now circumscribed by one individual’s opinion. I don’t want to let it in there, because I just have to stay open to do my Falstaff and not to define it too much.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll have to let you in on a little secret, though: The reviews have been quite good.
KEVIN KLINE: Oh, good. Oh, really? No, I heard. ( Laughs )
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a scene just before the battle starts when the king, the prince, Falstaff are all on the battlefield. And everyone goes away, Falstaff is left out there and he starts considering honor — what is honor. Could you do that speech for us?
KEVIN KLINE: Falstaff is one of the greatest rationalizers in all of literature. He can talk himself out of anything or into anything or find an excuse to do or not to do anything in a very articulate way that’s almost convincing.
This is one where he convinces himself that, alright, he’s going into the battle, but it’s not for any of the reasons everyone else is because we’ve heard for most of the play, certainly in the scenes just preceding the battle all of this rhetoric about valor and honor.
And he just cuts right through it. He’s alone on the stage and he says: “But ’tis no matter. Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? ( Laughter ) No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word, honor? What is that honor? Air.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Where does your love for Shakespeare, your urge to do Shakespeare, come from?
KEVIN KLINE: The language of Shakespeare provides, because it is poetry, in a sense, it is a distillation, it’s an intensification. It just hits you in different parts of your body and can knock you over. And it’s kind of a rare privilege to get to say those words.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you get goose bumps when you do it. It’s exciting to do.
KEVIN KLINE: He just says it so well. Do you know what I mean? And it’s so theatrical. It’s not, it’s not your everyday … it’s intense, it’s intense. And such a revelation and celebration of man’s expressibility in a very intense, compressed few hours of theater. It’s fun, and we don’t get much of that. So yeah, it gives me goose bumps, yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Kline, Sir John Falstaff, thank you for talking to us.
KEVIN KLINE: Well then, “Jack Falstaff to my friends, John to my brothers and sisters, and Sir John Falstaff to all Europe,” is how I, how he signs his letters.