I had misgivings about reviewing this play. My confession: for me a Shakespeare history play can grow tiresome in its soliloquies and tangled politics. In essence, I have yet to become enamored with this portion of the Shakespeare folio.
However, I was intrigued about how Vaughn would take on a play that was a sequel to last year’s “Henry IV Part 1” and is to be followed by “Henry V” next season. I was especially intrigued to see a play that is rarely performed. No theater Shakespeare buff should pass up an opportunity to see a rarely performed play produced by one of the nations’ top theaters.
The opening scene was absolutely riveting. The true test of a good storyteller (whether author or director) is their ability to create a strong beginning and ending. Fortunately, these two scenes were visually and emotionally strong in this play. The opening scene may have been the first step to me turning over a new Shakespeare history viewing leaf. Larry Bull enters as a masked Rumour on a stage in an embattled England. As Hotspur fights his dying battle, thus turning the tides of a rebellion between Henry IV and the Earl of Northumberland and his supporters, Bull has the audience enthralled in his foreboding role as Rumour as he warns that at first all the news of the battles will “bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs,” and “not a man of them brings other news than they have learn’d of me: from Rumours tongues.”
Later seen as King Henry IV, Bull is one of the strongest forces in this play that is a cast of talented Shakespearean actors who bring life to Shakespeare’s words. Without seeing a cast list it would have been impossible to know these two roles are played by the same person. His portrayal of the dying King revealed the emotional battle behind the scenes as he faces his own mortality, the concerns for his heir Prince Hal’s coming of age and the future of his kingdom. It was hard not to become emotionally attached to his scenes – so convincing was his King Henry IV.
The story of “Henry IV Part 2” like many of Shakespeare’s history plays, can become complicated. There are more than 40 characters in the play, and many of the actors pull double and triple duty. There were moments when the character lineup overwhelmed. Much like the middle of a book series, this play touched upon so many different storylines and how they related to its key players, Prince Hal (Sam Ashdown), Sir John Falstaff (John Ahlin), and King Henry that I was stuck between figuring out which characters were on the stage and drifting off for a moment during a long scene that did not move quickly enough.
This had nothing to do with the directing or acting – but was a challenge of the play itself. The casting was superb and the acting even more so. I suggest that a reading of the play synopsis and the director’s notes for this play or the absolutely enlightening historical timeline found at www.bard.org or in theFestival’s Souvenir Guide will shed light on this play’s storyline; although in the final scenes of the play all the pieces begin to fall in place.
If there is a moment where the Bard’s story loses momentum in this play, costume designer David Kay Mickelsen’s sumptuous costumes will provide a visual feast of 15th century detail that helps make this play into a beautiful period piece. Lighting designer Donna Ruzika and scenic designer Vicki M. Smith provide the finishing details to create the changing moods of this play.
When Falstaff enters the scene or Prince Hal, there is a lingering feeling of merriment as these two continue to make an effort to live out their past days of rebellious capers. Ahlin’s Falstaff is a charming rascal who embodies what the Lord Chief Justice (James Newcomb) refers to as “impudent sauciness.” Yet, Falstaff refuses to admit that his days of bluster and rousing may be coming to an end as Prince Hal starts to take on the responsibilities he has ignored.
As Prince Hal joins his father at his death bed he begins to feel the weight of a kingdom, and as his father says earlier in the play he begins to understand that “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Ashdown plays a convincing prince who steps over the line from a playful youth to a man ready to rule a kingdom. Bravo to Ashdown for making that transformation feel authentic and building the bridge that will bring his character into Henry V to be performed in the 2016 season. Ashdown has already been cast as Henry V for this upcoming play.
Taking on the story for a cast full of characters and a royal history can be a daunting undertaking for actor, director and audience member. Thanks to Vaughn and his amazing cast, I am glad that I have added this play to my theater experience. This visually stunning piece of work was definitely more than I hoped for from one of Shakespeare’s histories. I will be back for “Henry V” next year.