Imagine there’s no director — it’s easy if you try — and no designers too. Imagine further that the actors, amidst their other theatrical responsibilities, must put this play together in ten days or so, not only learning the complex language but determining the blocking, deciding what (if any) props are to be used, and, most importantly, determining the approach to the play which will drive the audience’s understanding. Finally, imagine that all this is done under full lights, with the audience (some of whom are on stage) visible to the actors.
This is what’s going on at the American Shakespeare Center in their Actors’ Renaissance Season which opened this past weekend and ends in April. To someone used to theater done in traditional ways, like me (and probably you) it seems incredibly risky. One actor’s interpretation of his role invariably affects how other actors interpret theirs, and can thus set off a catastrophic chain reaction.
But the technique works perfectly in Much Ado About Nothing, which I reviewed last Saturday. It works a bit less well in Henry IV, Part 2, in part because the play is much more diffuse than the Bard’s best work. It is still a satisfying experience, intelligently conceived and well rendered. But, while you walk out of Much Ado aglow with pleasurable wit and hard-earned wisdom, the aftertaste of this production of 2 Henry IV is a little harder to identify.
2 Henry IV is only incidentally about King Henry IV (David Anthony Lewis); its main subject is the shameless Sir John Falstaff (John Harrell), whose stock-in-trade is illusion, much like theater itself. In Part 1, Falstaff relentlessly cultivated his relationship with young Prince Hal (Brandon Carter, here sporting a hideous scar from an arrow which the real Hal took in his battle with Hotspur). In Part 2, we see what it gets him.
In the larger sense, 2 Henry IV is about betrayal. Falstaff betrays as easily as he breathes – perhaps more easily in allergy season – whether it is his long-suffering landlady, Mistress Quickly (Sylvie Davidson), the sex worker Doll Tearsheet (Zoe Speas), whom he has tricked into loving him, perhaps to save on expenses, or Prince Hal himself, who he slanders behind his back.
Henry IV, Part 2 closes April 18, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
He is living in an age of betrayal. Henry IV has achieved the throne by overthrowing, and eventually murdering, the legitimate monarch, his cousin Richard II. But if one minor Lord can take the throne by killing the incumbent, why can’t they all? Thus Henry spends most of Part I fending off a rebellion led by Hotspur, the Welch mystic Owen Glendower, and the fierce Scottish warrior Douglas. As Part II dawns, he faces a new rebellion, led by the Archbishop of York (Jessika Williams), Lord Mowbray (Chris Johnston), Lord Hastings (KP Powell) and Lord Bardolph (Speas). Hotspur’s father Northumberland (Ronald Román-Meléndez) is hot to add his forces to theirs, but persuaded by his wife (Meg Rodgers) and Hotspur’s widow (Constance Swain), he sends word that he will arrive after the battle is joined. He never does.
Part I drives itself forward with a singleness of purpose. Part II kind of ambles. We begin with a prologue (Williams delivers it) which summarizes Part I, then go to Northumberland, who gets the bad news about the battle, and then to London, where Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice (Benjamin Reed) go at it; next we see the rebels, trying to assess whether they will attack the crown, then we go to Mistress Quickly’s tavern, where she is trying to get Falstaff arrested, and so on. Prince Hal does not enter until the fifth scene, and the King himself not until the eighth. In the ninth scene Shakespeare introduces a whole new cast of characters, headed up by Justice Shallow (Powell) and his cousin Silence (Rodgers; in an amusing twist, the production has Silence be as loud as a debating politician trying to speak over a female opponent, and gripped with spectacular social anxiety as well). The rebellion which sets the play in motion is resolved in scene eleven (in this production, at the top of the second Act) through a terrible act of betrayal, but there are eight more scenes and an epilogue to go, and so the play turns to other matters.
Of course, history plays are constrained, dammit, by history itself, and history seldom proceeds in a satisfactory narrative arc. Thus we look to producing companies to sweeten history’s insights, or at least the story’s, and here ASC performs some service. Harrell’s Falstaff is not a jolly fat man; nor a high-jinkser with a sense of humor; nor a giddy, high-spirited, free-spirited alternative to Hal’s rigid father. He is a bad man, who thinks nothing of making his servants carry his urine samples and chamber pots and farts in the Lord Chief Justice’s direction because he lacks the wit or courage to argue against him. He runs out on his debts and, more significantly, undertakes them with no intention of paying. After insulting the Chief Justice, he has the audacity to ask for a thousand-pound loan. Moreover, as Harrell plays him he is angry, insulted that he is held to the same standards of other men, after all the great and heroic good he has done for the nation. Played that way, the prime victim of Falstaff’s delusional tropes seems to be himself.
Harrell’s fierce, focused approach to the characters liberates some of the other actors to bring out the fierceness in themselves. The chief beneficiaries are Speas as Doll Tearsheet and Chris Johnston as Pistol, a Falstaff minion so violent and angry that MS-13 would reject him as too unrestrained. Speas’ Tearsheet, similarly, simmers with a rage which is never too far below the surface. Her relationship with Pistol is as flammable as a sheet soaked in gasoline, and it threatens to explode with little provocation on several occasions. And yet Speas is able to turn that passion around to propel Doll’s love for Falstaff, which seems genuine and unforced.
On the other hand, it also allows Lewis’ Henry – one of the most amoral leaders in human history – to assume a sympathetic role. Lewis imbues the King with great gravity. In contrast to Harrell’s Falstaff, Henry – who is dying, and knows it – seems thoughtful and even kind, rather than calculating and hypocritical. The betrayal which saves Henry’s kingdom is not executed by Henry but by his son Prince John, the Duke of Lancaster (Swain); and Henry seems oblivious, if not to the victory, then to the way it was done.
Carter’s Hal, too, seems subdued, even chastened, compared to Falstaff or even the Hal we traditionally see in Part 1. He keeps in contact with the old gang, especially Ned Poins (Williams, who plays four roles in this production) but he is less inclined to recklessness and bravado. Carter plays him like a man who has previously taken an arrow in his face, and thus has learned (as we all do, and about at Hal’s age) that he is not immortal.
While the whole has a somewhat ambiguous flavor, there are undoubtedly powerful moments, including a beautifully-played final scene, more remarkable not only for the ultimate betrayal, but for Falstaff’s delusional reaction, perfectly in tune with his delusional life.
Henry IV, Part 2,by William Shakespeare, directed by the cast . Featuring Jessika Williams, David Anthony Lewis, Brandon Carter, Constance Swain, Meg Rodgers, Chris Johnston, Danielle A. Festa, Zoe Speas, Ronald Román-Meléndez, KP Powell, John Harrell, and Sylvie Davidson . Produced by American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
** A brief historical note: the evidence of Hal’s reputation as a youthful reprobate, so dominant in Shakespeare’s plays, is in reality exceedingly thin. Falstaff (among others) is a fictional character, though Shakespeare did base him on Sir John Oldcastle, and even called him that in some early versions of earlier work until his descendants threatened to sue.