While most fans agree “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best film in the original Star Wars trilogy, few of them would suggest watching the film in isolation. It would be like attending only Part Two of Shakespeare’s trio of plays on Henry V: a middle with no beginning or end.
Two years ago the Utah Shakespeare Festival set about staging Shakespeare’s 10-play History Cycle in chronological order, which means that for regular festival goers this year’s production of Henry IV Part Two is the anticipated continuation of the story begun last season in Part One, and preparation for the culminating production of next year’s Henry V. For the unsuspecting tourist, however, it is likely to be a disappointing experience: since much of the play’s dramatic turns pivot on actions that occur in Part One, their poignancy and meaning will be lost on the day trippers looking for a bit of entertainment after their hiking excursions in nearby Color Country.
The play’s opening scene, in which a masked Rumor, played by Larry Bull (who also plays King Henry), delivers a skin-raising prologue from above while Prince Henry (Sam Ashdown) battles a masked Hotspur in slow motion on a smoke-filled stage, sets the dark and melancholy mood that permeates the play. Throughout Part Two, fates are uncertain, allegiances unknown, betrayal in the air. Falstaff, played by John Ahlin, still entertains, but his antics are less free-spirited than in Part One, his discourse on the merits of sack (sherry) not wholly able to chase away the melancholy that besets even him.
Prince Henry, a central character in Part One, in this installment is largely absent until the final scenes, where he reconciles with his father and with the larger responsibilities he represents and turns his back, literally and figuratively, on Falstaff. Ashdown returns this season as Prince Henry — and Bull as King Henry and Ahlin as Falstaff, the festival having engaged the three principals for both plays to further highlight the cohesiveness of their chronological project. Ashdown is much more convincing here under the mantle of responsibility than he was in Part One under the haze of drink. Ahlin’s Falstaff is charmingly well-rounded (pun intended) and Bull’s aging King Henry an impressive manifestation of guilt and worry.
Henry IV Part Two is not often staged. It is really a long interlude, leading up to the final scenes, which a modern editor would have attached to Part One for a more cohesive story. But that interlude is given over to Sir John Falstaff, the character literary critic Harold Bloom has called Shakespeare’s greatest invention, which may be compensation enough for the ticket holder who missed last season.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two, directed by Brian Vaughan, is part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s summer season and continues in Cedar City through September 5. For more information visit www.bard.org.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.