I am at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this week, both for an academic conference and to take in the last season at the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Construction of a new outdoor playhouse is ongoing across the street to which the dimmers of the Adams will be transferred at the end of the summer. As part of the festival’s agenda to “complete the canon” by staging all of Shakespeare’s works before mounting any restagings, this season features The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, and 2 Henry IV.
The last five years have seen an unexpected surge in productions of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays. Aside from the success of the television series, The Hollow Crown, and Jamie Parker’s Olivier win for his portrayal of Hal in all three of Shakespeare’s plays featuring the young prince at London’s Globe, it seems everywhere I land one of these plays are up. (There is a fab interview with both Tom Hiddleston and Parker on the role of Hal from The Independent.) Last summer while doing research in the UK I caught 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV at the Royal Shakespeare Company (a sentimental moment since I saw them with my mother, the person who gave me Shakespeare), and this summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. They too are doing the whole of the tetralogy, but are spreading it across seasons as they build up to the opening of their new playhouse next summer. Sam Ashdown—a UIUC MFA alum who I reviewed in several productions from 2009 to 2011—is their Hal, having inaugurating the role last summer with 1 Henry IV and concluding it in the flagship production next fall, Henry V.
I must admit I don’t quite understand the buzz for playing the sequence of the plays. As the penultimate play to the series, 2 Henry IV is actually a difficult one to recount. The playboy prodigal heir to the throne has won a major military victory, but is still struggling between his two worlds: that of the London commoners, the people he would rule, and that of his father’s Court. The play is more a series of vignettes, providing a Jonson-esque social panorama of England-between-wars, from the rural (and starving) parsonages to the diseased and economically depressed streets of Cheapside. Hal is in perhaps only half of the play, But it is perhaps this survey of London that was part of the play’s appeal. Another may have been the Queen herself. Two independent sources–althougha hundred years after the fact–suggest that Shakespeare revived Falstaff at the insistence of the Elizabeth I. John Dennis, a literary critic who adapted The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1702, asserted, “I know very well that it hath pleased one of the greatest queens that ever was in the world…This comedy was written at her command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation.” Nicholas Rowe, in his Life of Shakespeare (1709), reports that the Queen “was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love.” What does 2 Henry IV hold for audiences now?
Brian Vaughn’s staging stressed both the antique military history of England and the power of rumor in political debate. With the many over-sized battle standards in varying states of destruction dropped across the balcony and wings, the production seemed to be pulling strongly on the aesthetic of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) film. Even Ashdown’s physic echoes Branagh in its capable, everyman boyishness. The soldiers are quite clean and they wear their swords easily despite the gruesome battle that has just ended. Typically I like a muddy and bloodstained design here, as not to whitewash the material effects and trauma of battle. Here it seemed to work as it more clearly juxtaposed the elite coterie against the soot-stained citizens of Cheapside. The number of actors employed and the exaggerated set pieces did bring a sense of epic-scale to the production, suggesting that this a crucial turning point in England’s history. With a packed house, one wonders what American (and especially American West) audiences might have invested in the fortunes of medieval English history. Perhaps it is a testament to a growing sense of global interconnected histories? Or our deep-seated step-child associations with the U.K.?
Another suggestion as to why these Wars of the Roses plays have a great deal of traction currently might be the state of political cultures in the UK and US. The play opens with a fabulously frightening prologue by Rumor played by Larry Bull (who also plays King Henry IV and Kent in King Lear). When we remember that in Richard II, the would-be Henry IV is basically forced by his fellow peers and circumstances to usurp an indecisive, selfish, and ineffectual monarch despite his loyal to the abstraction of the Royal Crown, Larry Bull’s casting as the loyally disloyal Kent seems all the more interesting. Kent resists his king’s orders in order to protect all the monarch seems to stand for. So did Henry IV, but here we get to see the fall-out of that choice, whose guilt and uncertainty would plague and eventually kill him. Rumor and misinformation circulate around the king and incite continued rebellion from tip-to-tail of the play. Perhaps, with the widespread mistrust of the American media (more than 80% of facts cited in the first GOP debate earlier this month were incorrect, according to several independent organizations) and the next fourteen months of a protracted and expensive presidential campaign, the role of rumor in political debate is pervasive in public discourse. Rumor opened this play all in black, to return at the end all in white. Does this suggest a neutral valence to rumor as a function of political discourse? Or has Rumor transformed into the Chorus of Henry V? The play concludes with the opening lines of Henry V, “Oh for a muse of fire!” as a clever bit of internal advertising for the next season. It also suggests, simply but provocatively, that memory, narration, and rumor are all faces of the same social force.