Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2000
You could call him the King of Shakespeare. Dakin Matthews has acted, directed and adapted the Bard; he’s even written a play (Uncommon Players, Old Globe, 1995) culled from Shakespeare’s writings. You’d think he was reared in Avon and diapered in the First Folio.
No such thing. Matthews fell into Shakespeare “completely accidentally.” He wasn’t even a drama major in college; he never took an acting class. At St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park (near his Bay Area home), he majored in Philosophy and English. As a graduate student, someone dared him to audition for the Marin County Shakespeare Festival. He landed the role of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I. and that “first gig” started him down a rose-strewn Shakespearean path.
As an English professor at Cal State Hayward, he took “a very academic interest in Shakespeare.” Meanwhile, he’d act in every play and every summer Shakespeare festival he could. He even ran the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival. But he still thinks he “sidled into it all.”
Nevertheless, his “academic interest” in Shakespeare served him well; thirty years ago, he became one of the first dramaturges in the country, and has played that role especially well at the Old Globe, where he recently conflated Henry IV, Parts I and II into a single play. Last year, he played Falstaff once again (in The Merry Wives of Windsor). Despite having a wife (Anne McNaughton, who directed Collected Stories at the Globe last year) and four children, he commuted from San Francisco to Los Angeles for five years, to pursue a TV and film career while not giving up his day job. Among other features and series, he appeared in “The Muse,” “Nuts,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “The West Wing” and “L.A. Law.” When he was ready to retire from teaching and settle down in one city, he chose L.A.
Now he’s back at the Globe (his 16th acting or directing project there), returning to Henry V (July 8-August 12). The last time he came here for Henry V was 19XX.
“I’d been trying to get hired by the Globe for years,” Matthews chuckles. “I finally got hired and there was no theater.” It had just burned to the ground.
Now, he’s tackling Henry again, but for the first time, as director. He’d originally been brought in as dramaturge; he’d done his research and was prepared to clarify the text for the actors. Then the original director had to pull out, and Matthews stepped up to the plate, happily mounting the piece on the Festival Stage. “Shakespeare’s plays are written for the outdoors,” he says. He isn’t giving any modern spin or high concept to the mammoth, 60-character, multiple-setting play. .
“We’ll have a cast of about 20, and lots of doubling and tripling of roles. It will be very presentational and very theatrical. The costumes will be period dress, suggestive but not authentic. We’re doing a medieval or ‘mansions’ staging, building little houses onstage to represent a place or country. There’ll be two stages within stages, representing France and England.”
First presented in 1598, the play chronicles the life of the king of England (1413-1422) from the wild, profligate “Prince Hal” of Henry IV to the surprisingly wise and capable monarch he becomes as Henry V. In an effort to seize the French crown, he leads a vastly outnumbered, ragtag army to triumph in the decisive battle of Agincourt. The night before the battle, the king walks disguised among his fearful soldiers and prays for victory. Combining poetry, pageantry and history, Henry V is a contemplation of war and nationalism, language, statesmanship and leadership.
“I’m just crazy about a clear, comprehensible presentation of the play,” says the affable, erudite director. “It’s not important that the audience understand everything that’s going on in English history. I think the play resonates wonderfully today. It’s about the faces we present to the world.
“Shakespeare was the first great playwright of the Western world to probe the psychology of characters. Because he was an actor, his inroad into other people’s psychology was role-play. And Henry is the ultimate role-player. No matter how guilty and insecure he feels, he must present optimism and certainty to his troops.
“When you must play roles, what happens to you inside? Some lose the ability to distinguish interior life from exterior roles, and they lose themselves. Because Henry has practiced role-play so much, he suffers less. His self-knowledge is amazing. Early in Part I [of Henry IV] he actually says he’s learning about his country by playing various roles. It’s a fascinating, human story.
“People don’t realize that, in the play, there’s not a single battle or fight scene. It’s really a battle of words, a celebration of language — one of Shakespeare’s best. It’s got lots of comedy and patriotic speeches. But it isn’t jingoismc. This is a man who understands how complex patriotism is. There are some strikingly realistic scenes, and questions of whether wars are moral, and whether generals run them for their own purposes but don’t get their hands dirty. It can’t be jingoistic when there are scenes like that. It reminds you of how complex the problem of war is, and how hard it is to be king.”
Even king of Shakespeare.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.