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Henry IV, Part Two

The Lesser Play Grows into the Greater Work

Shakespeare Theater Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014, H-108&109 (center stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn

Slender and Shallow in black cloaks and hats, Slender mouth agape, Shallow leaning over talking to him, at a rough wood desk with a feather pen and inkwell
Justice Silence (Bev Appleton, left) and Justice Shallow (Ted van Griethuysen) talk before presiding over Falstaff's drafting of Gloucestershire men into his army in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part Two. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

I will praise any company that produces William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two, in its entirety—as the Shakespeare Theatre Company is doing in repertory with Part One—instead of conflating the two parts into one play, as many theaters do. A mash-up of the two is like a medley of hits in a concert: too much and not enough at the same time. Furthermore, as Jeff Watkins of the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta, Georgia, says, why skip the opportunity to sell two tickets instead of only one?

So what if the second part is lesser than the first? Lesser Shakespeare is greater than most other playwrights' work, and Part Two continues his winning streak of presenting singularly indelible characters, including a second heaping helping of Falstaff and his gang; Prince Hal, now not only grappling with his destiny internally but publicly, too; and the title character, now on his deathbed where "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." The play lacks the tight plotting and sharp dialogue present in the first part of Henry IV, but it has a couple of superior comic set pieces and two of Shakespeare's most famously dramatic moments: when Hal prematurely places the crown upon his head and when he banishes plump Jack Falstaff.

Michael Kahn's version of both parts for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, however, puts the lie to what I just wrote. Under his direction, Part Two is the better play. In fact, after walking into Sidney Harman Hall with low expectations generated by having seen Part One a week earlier, I walked out at the end exultant that I had seen such a finely wrought, well-acted Part Two that not only stands head and shoulders over most of the STC Shakespeare productions I've attended, it also establishes Part Two as a worthy equal to its companion pieces in both the Prince Hal trilogy (with Henry V) and the Falstaff trilogy (with Merry Wives of Windsor).

Even though we have a season subscription for STC, the company inexplicably scheduled our full-price-paid tickets for Part One six days ahead of opening night; that we were at a preview performance probably explains to a degree the poor product we saw. For Part Two, we again ended up being assigned a preview performance, but only two days before its opening night. This could explain one key difference between the two productions: on-stage chemistry, where the interplay between and among characters is sharper in Part Two than it was in Part One. (Still hard to discern the lines of some actors, though.)

One scene in particular exemplifies what two quality actors can do with Shakespeare's dialogue when they are dialed in to the lines' rhythm, content, and character context: the repartee between Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice in Act One, Scene Two. As played by, respectively, Stacy Keach and Derrick Lee Weeden, this scene between dexterous con and incredulous cop with its insults and counterinsults foreshadows Abbot and Costello, Dick and Tommy Smothers, Burns and Schreiber, and Gibson and Glover. What makes it all the funnier is the complete gravitas with which Weeden plays the Lord Chief Justice, engaging in such a wit war—"Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly?" he says to Falstaff, with "leg" clearly meant as the third one—while maintaining his superserious demeanor.

Yet, the difference in quality between STC's productions of the two parts may lie just as much in direction as in practice. In Part One, Kahn layered on his own imagery in an attempt to enhance character and drama, which is generally unnecessary with Shakespeare. In Part Two, Kahn teases out character and drama almost entirely (with a couple of irritating exceptions) from the lines themselves, giving the actors more internal oomph instead of making them merely pawns in an imposed conceptual context.

This keener direction starts from the moment the lights come up and we are introduced to Rumour tending to the sleeping Northumberland, Hotspur's father, who failed to support his son's armed rebellion in the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury because of illness. The full description of Rumour requires a spoiler alert (click here), but if you look through the cast list for the role, you won't find it. That might be a printing error, but I suspect not. A key point in Rumour's prologue to the play comes when he describes how "the blunt monster with uncounted heads, the still-discordant wavering multitude, can play upon it" and sweeps his hand to mean us, the audience, today. He also clearly highlights the phrase "crafty-sick" in describing Northumberland's illness. Sure enough, Northumberland (Kevin McGuire) is quick to jump out of bed and get dressed when he hears that a royal army is heading his way.

These are the details in the reading that reveal so much humanity coursing through the play's historical record and comic set pieces. Ted van Griethuysen plays Justice Shallow with rich nuance, supplementing his obviously comical lines with natural humorous readings of the rest. His Shallow is as mentally slow as he is slow-gaited, but he nevertheless reaches his destination toward which he is walking; likewise, though ultimately a wise old man, he takes some time to arrive at his wisdom. Van Griethuysen delivers Shallow's meandering nostalgia with the kind of reverence we all engage in looking back on our college years, whether those years were a year or three score years past. When he describes his fight with one Samson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's Inn, we smile at the silly image it presents but also at this lovable old man sharing a dear memory with us—a memory that, in van Griethuysen's telling, we can't be sure is a happy or rueful one, and probably both. "Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent," he says, as much woefully that he did spend them madly as that they are spent now.

In this way is this Shallow juxtaposed with Keach's Falstaff. For Shallow, old age is a matter of life: "Death is certain," he repeats often. For Falstaff, old age is an enemy to be avoided like a rebel's sword: Death is at the end of each. Remember that leading into his famous speech on honor in Part One, Falstaff replies to Prince Hal's contention that "thou owest God a death" with "'Tis not due yet, I would be loath to pay him before his day." Falstaff thus spends almost all of Part Two running from this debt in the same way he avoids fiscal obligations: he refuses to accept the doctor's opinion, the Lord Chief Justice's observations, or the widening gap between him and Hal. Falstaff holds on dearly to what is while Hal begins reaching toward what must come. But, "I am old," Falstaff tells Doll Tearsheet (Maggie Kettering) at the tavern, and then Keach looks toward the floor, a brief realization of truth washing over his face. "I am old," he repeats. "I love thee better than I love e'er a scurvy young boy of them all," Tearsheet replies. Keach's Falstaff half-heartedly returns to his delusionary bravado, but we get the clear sense that the truth was forced upon him when he couldn't sexually react to this ever-willing whore sitting on his lap, kissing him. Finding such psychological nuance in his character this time out, Keach delivers a much more engaging Falstaff in Part Two than he does with his line-reciting performance in Part One.

Matthew Amendt also grows into the role of Prince Hal in this second part. In his first scene, Hal, alone on stage with a servant, tries to appreciate wine when he'd rather have beer and tries to engage the servant in high jinks, but the man stands mute and unmoving. Hal can hardly swallow wine or formality. "Before God I am exceeding weary," he says upon the entrance of Poins (Jude Sandy). This is a Hal trying to fit into his royalty, but he continues wearing it uneasily and so jumps at the chance to play yet another prank on Falstaff. But news of more urgent matter in the court finally hastens Hal not just to his father's side but inextricably into the role history has fated he must play.

When he mistakenly believes his father dead and places the crown upon his own head, Amendt, taking a deep breath, does so as if plunging into icy water: It is a moment he later describes when he tells his father that he put the crown on his head "to try with it, as with an enemy that had before my face murder'd my father." Amendt gives another physically exquisite reading to what could easily be considered a formality when he has become king after the actual death of his father and issues commands for his own coronation. "That war, or peace, or both at once, may be as things acquainted and familiar to us," he says among a litany of platitudes. However, Amendt pauses longer with the second comma in that line, and he speaks "or both at once" with a sudden look of dawning realization. His war with France depicted in Henry V is born here, the dying advice of his father firmly taking root at this point.

Hal in brown coat sits on the bed with his hands on one side of the crown while Henry, in bed clothes and gray robe, holds the other side, they both looking at each other.
Prince Hal (Matthew Amendt) and his father King Henry IV (Edward Gero) finally reconcile on the king's deathbed as they discuss keeping the crown safe from rebellion in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part Two. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

It's not fair to say Edward Gero grows into his role as Henry; rather, he seems to be unshackled from being the strong king made weak by interpretation in Part One to a weak king made strong by Shakespearean intent in Part Two. Gero gives his soliloquy on sleeplessness with believable pathos, a man truly sorry that ever he reached so high as the royal throne when he returned to England from his banishment way back in Richard II. His deathbed scene and advice to his son reveal the political craftsmanship with which he reached the throne and the comfort he takes in the assurance that his eldest son, after all, "with more than with a common pain 'gainst all the world will rightfully maintain" the crown. "My gracious liege, you won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me," Hal tells his dad. "Then plain and right must my possession be," a passage Amendt speaks with resounding resonance.

Thus, it's unfortunate that Kahn chooses this moment to interpolate a voiceover of Richard II speaking from the deposition scene in Richard II. It's the second time he uses this device in this play: the portion of the Flint Castle speech with which he opened Part One is revived at the end of Henry's sleeplessness soliloquy heading into the intermission. Even if you could debate its thematic merits—though, let me point out that Shakespeare himself will repeat passages from previous plays when he deems it important to do so—it's a dramatic intrusion. Everybody on stage pauses in suspended animation while Gero listens in mawkish consternation to his loud conscience. It's such an overblown attempt at seeming heavy, man, heavy, that we wonder if Kahn has it in him to authentically, effectively draw tears from us.

And then he proves he can. The newly crowned Henry V accosts the Lord Chief Justice who often berated him and once arrested him. Weeden's Lord Chief Justice, who has hitherto withstood Falstaff's bandying wit, stands his ground with unwavering dignity and certitude as Hal first accosts him. Hal, though, lowers a boom of a totally different order. "You are right, Justice, and you weigh this well," he says. "Therefore still bear the balance and the sword," and as he says this, Amendt kneels before Weeden and takes his hand to kiss it. Weeden's Justice for the first time loses his poise, at first thinking he should kneel himself and realizing in the instant that he mustn't contradict his king; all the while Hal is requesting that the Lord Chief Justice serve as a surrogate father to him and chief counselor. Weeden's speechless shock is genuinely rendered, and at the end of Hal's speech, he swallows hard and bows his head in acknowledgment of his new, more important role to the young king. Never mind Hal's repudiation of his former surrogate father to come, this beautifully staged moment rivals any Lear-Cordelia reunion in tightening your heartstrings.

Nor does it diminish the final, bittersweet banishment of Falstaff two scenes hence. An audience generally unfamiliar with this play audibly gasps when Amendt's Henry roars "I know thee not, old man." On the continuation of this line, "Fall to thy prayers," Amendt points to the ground, and Falstaff slowly kneels in obedience. Who has ever seen Falstaff kneel unwillingly? It's his final moment of truth. And the truth hurts, him and us.

Eric Minton
April 21, 2014

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