Taken together, Parts One and Two of Shakespeare’s Henry IV are so big that they need a category of their own. I left Friday night’s performance of Part Two thinking of cathedrals, which you have to look at first from the top of a hill — to see the architect’s design — then from the end of the street — to see the changes made by his successor — then chapel by chapel, where the life’s work of a thousand artisans awaits your eye. You can almost see them sharpening their chisels. So Friday night when I looked back down F Street toward Sidney Harman Hall, I was startled to see just cars and people and the buildings that had always been there.
All that talent, all that energy, and all that work: what had happened to the thing they made together? Gone, until the next night, when they would make it again from the beginning. That’s awesome.
Shakespeare starts Part Two in a way that seems to suggest that the play is an entity unto itself, not just an extension of Part One: a character named Rumor, who is described as “painted full of tongues,” delivers an introduction which is primarily an exercise in tone.
“Rumor is a pipe blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,” he says, “and of so easy and so plain a stop that the blunt monster with uncounted heads, the still-discordant wav’ring multitude, can play upon it. But what need I thus my well-known body to anatomize among my household?”
Nothing in Part One is so overtly conscious of itself. And director Michael Kahn underscores that self-consciousness by dressing Rumor in the sort of black suit you see by the thousands on the streets of Washington today and perching him on the foot of Northumberland’s bed with a tabloid newspaper open in front of his face. “ELVIS IS ALIVE!” the tabloid proclaims.
But instead of sending Rumor back out to deliver an epilog at the end of the play, as Shakespeare does, Kahn closes with an image that recalls the beginning of Part One: Hal on the catwalk, looking down at the stage, where Falstaff stands alone. Except now, Hal’s wearing the royal cape instead of his underwear, and Falstaff’s in handcuffs instead of in bed. Part Two, Kahn seems to suggest, is essentially the story of how those changes come to pass.
Rumor is one of several minor roles elaborated so lovingly by this production that they seem primary. Ted van Griethuysen strikes Rumor on the head with that wand great actors carry in their pockets, making his thirty-odd lines sound like musings that happened to float out of his mouth in an idle moment of transit from one droll engagement to another, not part of a play.
They are in fact little more than warm-up exercises for his later work as Justice Shallow, one of Falstaff’s old friends, who seems eager to chum it back up with the wastrel who is now supposed to be the gallant vanquisher of Hotspur. With his shuffling walk, his gray hair sticking out in all directions, and those mouth movements I associate with people trying to settle their dentures, van Griethuysen makes Shallow seem to exist in a life of his own, independent of the play we’re watching.
Francis Feeble, the woman’s tailor, is onstage for only three or four minutes, and he speaks only twelve lines, but Matthew McGee somehow makes him seem to be who he is regardless of any role he might have in this play, regardless of whether Falstaff decides to “prick” him (press him into service as a soldier), regardless of whether his friend Wart gets pricked or not. “No man’s too good to serve ’s prince,” he says, “and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.” Then he lifts his chin and poofs his hair and sashays into line beside the other “food for powder,” as Falstaff calls the men he leads to death in battle.
Likewise, Brad Bellamy invests Bardolph, Falstaff’s servant, with a weariness that embodies long-suffering in the lower classes so thoroughly that he always seems to be there, even when he’s not on stage. And Steve Pickering’s drunken Pistol, who is ready to “go off” for any reason or for none, makes a hilarious, stumbling assault on Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet that provokes spontaneous applause. And Kelley Curran as Hotspur’s widow scorches her father-in-law with a speech about the obscenity of honor next to death, taking up the note that Falstaff sounded in Part One.
But the focus of Part Two is Hal and Falstaff: can their spirits still be kindred in the aftermath of Part One? How might Hal be feeling now about agreeing to let Falstaff claim that he, not Hal, killed Hotspur? And how does that false claim make Falstaff feel about the recent, long-delayed arrival of his ship?
Those two roles are enormous. The number of lines and the quantity of psychological and circumstantial context which the actors must have ready at all times boggles the ordinary mind. It’s probably more material than Kevin Spacey has to know for an entire season of House of Cards, for example, except they can’t let any of it go as the story progresses because they have to do it all again, start to finish, 45 times.
Matthew Amendt says that he’s been living with Prince Hal since the age of seven, when he was stricken with a strange paralysis, and his mother introduced him to the Henry plays to distract him from the pain and fear associated with an inexplicable condition. “I have a vivid memory of lying on a butcher-papered medical table,” he writes, “a full class of medical students observing a painful examination as my case was so unusual, and reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech in my head, over and over, to escape.”
The symptoms went away on their own, with no explanation, but they returned every winter for the next twelve years — and Hal came with them. “He became a big brother to me, palpably real, and exactly what I needed,” Amendt writes. “He loved the days I felt bad for myself, in fact, so he could go off-script and berate me for not getting back in the fight.”
That long intimate relationship with Hal might explain, in part, how Amendt manages such mastery of the role. Every thought or feeling Hal might have, every possibility or obligation, every gesture he might make, and every mistake, seems to be alive inside of Amendt. “I know how trapped he feels, how much he loathes and fears the crown that waits to devour him,” Amendt writes. “At the same time, he certainly cares deeply for the people he is tasked to care for. He would die for them; I think perhaps he hopes to.”
Falstaff is no longer one of those people.
If sometimes in Part One we saw him risk a glimpse beyond his pretensions into the vulnerable places where we sometimes find the truth about ourselves, in Part Two we see only his commitment to the illusions he’s created — created and sustained with words. Falstaff’s first scene is a confrontation with Chief Justice, who would call him to account for the robbery he committed in Part One, but Falstaff subverts that effort by turning and re-turning his words.
“Sir John, Sir John,” Chief Justice says, “I am well acquainted with your manner of wrenching the true cause the false way. It is not a confident brow, nor the throng of words that come with such more than impudent sauciness from you, can thrust me from a level consideration.”
Henry IV, Part 2
Closes June 8, 2014
Shakespeare Theatre Company at
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $110
about 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Falstaff absolutely carries Part Two on his back. He is the only character who hasn’t yet accepted the turn of events toward their inevitable end, so he’s the only one who has to spend the energy required to maintain his illusions, which magnetizes him. Stacy Keach’s performance in the role is truly awe inspiring. He must make be a dozen speeches of forty lines or more in Part Two, and they all flow out of his so nonchalantly that you wonder if he’s making them up as he goes — talk, talk, talk right past the surface of whatever’s happening in front of him, watching all the while for any nod or any gesture that might help him believe what he says.
The only person Falstaff can’t thrust into any level of consideration that suits him is Hal. In the last scene, when he pauses on his way into exile and gazes up at his old friend, he seems to see not King Henry the Fifth, but the vestige of a promise coming true, in spite of everything.
He had hoped that it would break, and he won’t leave the stage until he sees that Hal had hoped so, too.
Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Featuring Matthew Amendt, Bev Appleton, Brad Bellamy, Julia Brandeberry, Michael Crowley, Kelley Curran, Aaron Gaines, Chris Genebach, Edward Gero, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Rhett Henckel, Max Jackson, John Keabler, Stacy Keach, Maggie Kettering, Matthew McGee, Kevin McGuire, Ade Otukoya, Steve Pickering, Alex Piper, Jack Powers, Jude Sandy, Joel David Santner, Brendon Schaefer, Kate Skinner, Vanessa Sterling, Patrick Vaill, Ted van Griethuysen, Craig Wallace, Derrick Lee Weeden, Nathan Winkelstein. Set design: Alexander Dodge. Costume design: AnnHould-Ward. Lighting design: Stephen Strawbridge. Produced by Shakespeare Theater Company. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.