Monday, September 12, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Henry IV part 2 (OSF, 2011)

The Play: Henry IV part 2.
Directed by: Lisa Peterson, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Genre & Setting: Have we even done a history yet? This is one of the histories. It was set in period costume, except for the allegorical character of “rumor,” who dressed in a Rolling Stones concert shirt. You know, with the mouth and tongue logo.  Not a choice I would have made, but you can see what they were driving at.

This performance was in the OSF’s open-air Elizabethan theater, which on a warm summer night is probably the best place on the planet to watch a play. As as the sun sets over the Bear Creek Valley and the stars start to come out, you could enjoy just about anything that happened onstage. Seriously. We watched Henry VIII there in ’09 and had a great time, that’s what an awesome setting it is. Anyway: the nature of the theater tends to demand a spare, abstract set.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: King Henry IV came to the throne through a series of dubious successions and untimely deaths. It would be great if the Prince of Wales could step up and show some promise of giving England some continuity and strong leadership when the time for the next succession rolls around.  Unfortunately, young Hal is spending his youth slumming with bawds, drunks, hookers, and other lowlife. In particular, he spends a lot of time with Sir John Falstaff, a fat, lazy, corrupt, cynical, worthless, and highly witty and charismatic ruffian. Someday, you think, someday Prince Hal is going to have to make a tough choice between his royal responsibilities and his lowbrow lifestyle.

Henry IV, part 2 is, as the name suggests, part of a series. Henry IV, part 1 comes before it! Henry V comes after it. The plays would be more sensibly be named Henry V parts 1, 2, & 3, since Henry IV is only a supporting character throughout, and the attention is always firmly fixed on (Hal/Henry V).  But whatevs. The OSF, which understands the concept of “repeat business,” is putting the three plays on in three consecutive years, and we saw part 1 last summer and are looking forward to the thrilling conclusion next year, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

A note on the relationship between part I and part II: they are the same play. Sure, there are different speeches, different key scenes, different wrinkles in the resolution of armed conflict, but – at the plot level, at least – if you have seen the one, you have seen the both. Indeed, since Hal most follow the same arc from bad boy to noble prince in both plays, one is left wondering about the missing but interesting chapter in-between, the bit where he relapsed. I’d like to hear more about that!

Why would Shakespeare write the same play twice? Well, duh, why did they make Jaws II? The original must have been a hit. A reasonable guess is that the jolly character of Falstaff must have stolen the show. Indeed, I believe that after his tenure in the Henry IVs Shakespeare trotted him out again, in a different setting and century, for Merry Wives of Windsor. On the other hand, he addresses the audience directly at the end of part II to say “See all y'all in Henry V,” but doesn’t end up appearing in that play after all. So who knows.

The Adaptation: Good! The comic bits were funny, the serious bits were serious, the climaxes were climactic, and the abstract bits were pulled off nicely. I could always understand what was going on, and keep track of who was whom. It made me reflect a little on the nature of authority and responsibility. What more could you ask from a history play?

Prognosis: Hie thee to the Elizabethan Theater some summer night.  It's pretty sweet.  And as before, I highly recommend having a brother in Ashland, as it makes seeing plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival both convenient and affordable!


lamanyana said...

The Henry IV/IV/V trilogy may also be familiar to folks as the basis for the Gus Van Sant movie "My Own Private Idaho," one of the stranger Shakespeare adaptations I've seen.

Cartophiliac said...

Many years ago I went to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and saw Richard II, Henry IV 1 and Henry IV 2, over two days.

The following year (although I did not see it) they did Henry V, a version of Henry VI that combined the highlights of Parts 1, 2 & 3) and Richard III.

There's your War of the Roses.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

It looks to me as if there is a titty bar in the background of that picture. That certainly is a new adaptation . . .