Utah Shakespeare Festival: “2 Henry IV”

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 ShrewKing 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.

Hal (Sam Ashdown) confronts his pub mates—and Falstaff (John Ahlin)—for the last time. Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2015.

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?

Falstaff (John Ahlin) claims a surprise captive from the rebels. Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2015.

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.?

Hal (Sam Ashdown) confronts what he believes is the deathbed of his father, the king (Larry Bull). Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2015.

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.


  • The Utah Shakespeare Festival‘s production of 2 Henry IV plays at the Adams Shakespeare Theatre 26 June to 5 September 2015.
  • A gallery of photos of the conference, play, and festival space is available here.
  • Check out the production preview below:

Utah Shakespeare Festival: “King Lear”

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.

Last night I took in the second of these, King Lear, which happens to be the flagship production of the season featuring television actor Tony Amendola. What is striking about this production are its attempt to naturalize Lear’s madness while at the same time interiorizing his daughters’ rejection as unnatural. The opening moments off the play were perhaps the most thoughtful: the ornate bannister of the balcony was replaced with something far more rough-hewn, and barren trees extend from the exposed discovery space up into the balcony. A rock formation is the only addition to this otherwise “bare” stage. The three sisters gradually enter, one by one, the stage and pace its edges silently while the audience shuffles and files into their seats, wringing their hands with looks of furrowed concentration. We are asked to connect the blasted heath of the set with the blasted emotions of Lear’s daughters from the outset.

Set design (Vicki M. Smith) with the Fool (David Pichette) entering above.

The barrenness of the stage design is a smart contrast to the sumptuous and italiante design of the night before with The Taming of the Shrew: Lear’s curse that Goneril be barren is underscored, and I must admit somewhere problematicall since her husband was the only actor of color on stage. It was unclear if the moment of miscenganous anxiety was intentional, coincidence, or the whitewashed cultural makeup or rural Utah coming unexpectantly to bear. Playing Goneril is the same same actress playing Kate the night beofer: it would seem Melinda Pfundstein is specializing in older sisters with a bad wrap this season. While the personas were clearly demarcated between productions, I wonder what kind, if any, bleed over their might have been for her in the rehearsal process? (The repertory company at USF tkae about seven weeks to build each show, usually in overlapping time frames.) She and Regan, played by Saren Nofs-Snyder, were well distinguished from one another, the later the more simpering and reactive in opposition to the former’s domineering approach to family politics.

Cordelia (Kelly Rogers) attempts to make decisions from France.

But one cannot write about Lear without addressing the technologies of madness: the storm and the blinding. Both moments of chaos and unreason, her the director, Sharon Ott, decided to go with a mechanized storm rather than one of the mind. Thunder effects (no lightening flashes however) and fog machines enveloped Amendola as he wrestled withhis environs. The delivery of the famous speech, “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage!” was aimed outward at the audience and the calm western night sky rather than inward as a show of Lear wrestling with his own inner demons. I make much of this because it seemed at odds with the rest of his performance where outbursts were followed by gestures, galnces, and other body language that implied Lear’s shock at his own behavior. James Newcomb’s Gloucester had perhaps a more satisfying arc in this case because you can see his cocky self-assurance, bragging at his own sexual prowess with his bastard son as evidence, dissolve at the unexpeted civil war within his own house, and then his blinding. Gloucester embraces (what he thinks are) the clifts of Dover, giving over to is natural environs as a means to explore his limitations as a father in which Lear could as well: it simply depends on the appraoch to his storm. A storm of the mind, while far more difficult to execute, may have aligned the narratives of Gloucester and lear far more coherently.

Edgar (Tyler Pierce) pretends to take his blinded father (James Newcomb) to the precipice of Dover.

There is no doubt that this was a visually stirring production, whose design was visually sympathetic to the outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre as well as the themes in the play itself. Rather than putting the interior anxieitites, the “madenesses,” of Gloucester, Lear, and their children on a continuum of inner dysfunction, the production cose to instead exteriorze the suffering of the fathers, making them something natural and sympathetic, while interiorizing and obfuscating the suffering of the children. By obfuscating those motives, children can only be seen as villains in this play—that, or impossible sacrificial lambs free from the trauma of living with power your whole life. (In this way Cordelia always seems an alien to me.) Certainly Lear is a crucial play today as we struggle with finding was of ethically supporting aging parents with dementia, mental and physical illnesses, while not stripping them of their dignitity and independence. Productions that interlink the generations in Lear rather than hermetically seal them off from on another (doing a kind of lip service to the commonplace that youth cannot comprehend what it means to age) in the way that Ott does so her with Gloucester and his sons are sorely needed–a compelling reason indeed to see this production in the festival’s last few weeks.

  • The Utah Shakespeare Festival‘s production of King Lear plays at the Adams Shakespeare Theatre 27 June to 4 September 2015.
  • A gallery of photos of the conference, play, and festival space is available here.
  • Check out the production preview below: