HENRY IV, PART 2 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Concludes a Tale of Fathers and Sons
In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare completes the epic tale of fathers and sons started in Henry IV, Part 1. Both have been produced within the last month by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company with the same cast, and they briefly overlap this March for a few Saturdays of repertory performances. And as I commented last month in my review of Part 1, the epic starts with two fathers or father figures (Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff), and two sons or son figures (Prince Hal and Harry Percy aka Hotspur). By the end of Part 1, one of the "sons," Hotspur, is gone. In Part 2, both of the fathers are also eliminated, dead or as good as dead. For Prince Hal to attain his destiny, he like all sons must replace his father, and if in this case there are two fathers, it simply means that there are two to surmount, surpass and survive.
In fact, figuratively, Hal, upon becoming king, acquires a new father figure, England's Chief Justice, who had, in Hal's eyes, established his credentials as an upholder of the royal peace by jailing Hal himself -- in Hal's wilder days when he had struck the Chief Justice "about Bardolph." (This one explanatory phrase is the only detail we have from Shakespeare about the supposed incident; there had evidently earlier been a now-lost play about Hal by some other playwright which had told the story, making it unnecessary for Shakespeare to repeat it.) In Hal's own phrase as he recommissions the Chief Justice: "You shall be as a father to my youth."
If Part 1 is Shakespeare at the top of his powers, Part 2 is not quite that. It is an oddly-shaped play because so little stage time is allocated to the two primary story lines, the two father-son relationships. Before a brief final confrontation with Falstaff, Hal only shares the stage with him for a couple of moments. Nor is Hal on stage with his father Henry until the latter is on his deathbed, effectively for one scene. The hole created by the separation among the protagonists is filled, in Falstaff's case, by more of the ribaldry, effrontery, and deceit that so delight audiences about him, and in Henry's case by the work of putting down the rebellions, and confronting his own age and infirmity. In Hal's case, there is - not much. Hal has already mostly reconciled with his royal father in Part 1 so there is not much more work to do on that issue. And while Hal could be depicted in Part 1 winning back his father's favor by winning a battle for him, Shakespeare had good dramatic reason to keep him out of the wars in Part 2, because they were won not with valor, but with a dirty trick, which Shakespeare effectively dramatizes, but chalks up the score for the trick with Hal's brother Prince John of Lancaster (DJ Batchelor) - leaving Hal out of it. (The actual historical Hal, incidentally, was quite happy to fight dirty, including massacring prisoners of war at Agincourt, and deliberately starving 12,000 war refugees trapped outside the walls at the siege of Rouen.)
One can sense Shakespeare recognizing the dramatic problem and seeking to cure it with bravura Acts Four and Five. (Of course today no one allows four intermissions in a Shakespeare play, but that was the convention in 1598.) Act Four concludes the tale of Henry and Hal, with a deathbed scene that's a corker, commencing as a surfeit of good war news for Henry coincides with the onset of his final illness. (In real life, the good war news came in 1405, and Henry died in 1413, so the coincidence is another of Shakespeare's dramatic contrivances.) Hal then finally arrives, meditating soberly upon the crown resting on Henry's pillow, and he innocently wanders off with it, setting up a contretemps; Henry is offended that his son is rudely over-eager to take possession of this dangerous adornment and worried that Hal is heedless of how much of a burden it is. Hal thus receives the opportunity to explain how clearly he understands the burden, and demonstrates that understanding by showing appropriate edification by his dad's final advice. Act Five includes the reconciliation of the Prince and the Chief Justice and the necessary but nonetheless horrific repudiation of Falstaff. These finishing fireworks do redeem the play, but do not place it at quite the level of the better-unified and dazzling Part 1.
Of course there is no shame in doing a good job with A-minus Shakespeare. And Chesapeake Shakespeare Company continues its outstanding work with the Henrys. Gerrad Alex Taylor, killed off as Hotspur in Part 1, joins Ian Gallanar in the director's chair for this round. The continuing cast, Séamus Miller (Hal), Ron Heneghan (Henry), Gregory Burgess (Falstaff), and The Revelers: Scott Alan Small (sporting a monstrous nose as Bardolph), Lance Bankerd (Hal's wingman Poins), Kathryne Daniels (Falstaff's wingman Peto), Gregory Michael Atkin (brawler Pistol), Tamieka Chavis (the put-upon Mistress Quickly) and Ashly Fishell-Shaffer (trollop Doll Tearsheet), keep the enterprise engaging. Heneghan makes the transition to an old and sick Henry credible and properly pathetic. Miller and Burgess render the inevitable scene where Hal casts off Falstaff the chilling and startling thing the audience has expected, even if Shakespeare has given us enough foreshadowing so we all know it's coming whether we're familiar with the play or not. And I adored Fishell-Shaffer's Doll, whose extravagantly abusive language here is matched with a gameness for tussling that provides fight choreographer Casey Kaleba another opportunity to show off his ingenuity, so much on display in Part 1. The abuse Shakespeare writes for Doll is in its inventiveness a kind of poetry, and the tussling is convincing but also rises to a comparable sublimity of slapstick. (She is pictured above in a more placid moment with Falstaff, as Hal and Poins react in the background.)
The returning cast is joined by, among others, Nello DeBlasio (the Archbishop of York who takes up arms against Henry), Brendan Murray (the Chief Justice Hal perspicaciously affirms), and Michael Crowley (Shallow, an aptly-named justice of the peace whose hopes of profiting from an old intimacy with Falstaff end as one would expect, Falstaff being Falstaff). All are wonderful.
In 2016, the website Priceonomics published a study of the frequency with which Shakespeare's individual plays had been performed by professionals throughout the English-speaking world since 2011, comprising about 2,000 productions. The two Henry IVs were close to the bottom of the list, cumulatively totaling perhaps 3% of all Shakespeare productions. But Part 1 did considerably better than Part 2. And Parts 1 and 2 together ranked dead last. These statistics substantiate what a rare opportunity Baltimore audiences have here, to see not only one but both under-produced plays. The opportunity should be seized.
Henry IV, Part 2, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ian Gallanar and Gerrad Alex Taylor, through April 7, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $31-$55 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Brandon W. Vernon.