TV VIEWERS KNOW DELANEY WILLIAMS as the jovially ball-busting, go-along-to-get-along Sgt. Landsman of the novelistic HBO series “The Wire.” Long before he hit the screen, Williams trod the boards, appearing at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, etc. This month he inhabits the massive frame of Falstaff in the Folger‘s production of “Henry IV, Part 1.” A drunkard’s drunkard, a coward’s coward and (not coincidentally) a survivor’s survivor, Falstaff never had a Shakespeare play named for him, but he is nevertheless one of the most magnificent of the Bard’s creations.
» EXPRESS: Do you see similarities between Landsman as an organization man and Falstaff as someone who talks a good game but never sticks his neck out so far that he risks losing his head?
» WILLIAMS:David Simon, creator and executive producer and head writer of “The Wire” — that’s one of the things that he always went back to when talking about Landsman: He’s the consummate survivor of that environment, of his life. You see that in Falstaff. It’s important to him, his own skin, but … he sees that as smart and logical and true and honest and righteous. And that it’s not so much a failing on his part to be a survivor, but it’s an achievement.
» EXPRESS: Falstaff’s greatest speech in the play is about the meaninglessness of honor. It seems especially apt today. Is cowardice a form of heroism?
» WILLIAMS: This may not be your traditional take on the role, but it’s my take on the role. … I don’t think, generally, you think of the strictly human side of what these characters are going through when you’re talking about a historical play from 400 years ago.
» EXPRESS: Respectfully, is Falstaff the Hawaiian shirt of great stage roles, in that actors possessed of a certain physical presence can occupy it the way no runt man can?
» WILLIAMS: Actually, I think I’ve seen a Falstaff or two in a Hawaiian shirt in previous productions. … I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have been the first choice for Hotspur or Hal or even Henry in this production, but if you were thinking about a man of my size to play a role, this is the one that might first come to mind.
» EXPRESS: Do you bodily haul the actor who plays Hotspur around the stage?
» WILLIAMS: We finished tech this weekend. I do get a chance to haul David Jones around, and, fortunately, he’s not of Falstaffian proportions.
» EXPRESS: Did the actors on “The Wire” buy the season five story line about McNulty faking the existence of a serial killer?
» WILLIAMS: I say, pick up tomorrow’s Washington Post, read through it and go, “OK. I don’t buy that — but somebody did.”
» Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE; through Nov. 16, $25-$55; 202-544-7077. (Union Station/Capitol South)
Written by Glenn Dixon for Express
Photo by Carol Pratt