Productions of Shakespeare’s histories rely strongly on the casting and staging, far more I think than the comedies. The source material is denser, drier, and often requires that the actors convey a wealth of information to the audience about past or off screen events. While the casts are often small, each actor usually portrays several characters, so it requires much more focus on the part of the audience to keep track of events. I’m sure someone, somewhere tried Game of Thrones style sexposition – putting graphic acts on stage to distract from the dull but necessary context, but it’s not the usual option. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has just concluded the Henriad: the plays concerning the reign of Henry IV and the rise of Henry V. They pulled it off with a strong style that shows an increasing dedication to production values, especially in stage combat and cultivating talent.
While Shakespeare worked to convey history (and as a historian it’s incredibly fun to compare his version to what we know or think from our point in time), he knew his audience would not stand for a dry recitation of kings and their accomplishments. As with much of his work, the histories come alive in the secondary characters, the side stories and counter stories.
Most of the histories hold more than a little darkness: rebellion, regret, murder, or loss. Shakespeare must always walk a line between irreverence and displaying the rulers’ humanity. Take King John, who contemplates killing the young prince who may one day supplant him, only to change his mind. The boy falls to his death during an escape attempt. Was this history or a fabrication to protect the notion of kings as divine and noble? The line of pure evil is skirted but rarely passed (Richard III being the most notable exception). The Henriad has its own sways between good and darkness. Rebels and villains rail, fight, lose and keep fighting. Treachery abounds. More than one noble hero, or prince, falls.
The Henriad focuses its side stories on Falstaff and his cronies, strengthening the story and making it more human since we’re given the regal side of the war beside the common. Falstaff and his clowns reflect the larger story in microcosm but in a funhouse mirror way that helps to understand the weight of the events through a comical and base reflection. The impact of their slackened duty has a real effect, helping to show the weight of Prince Hal’s own wasted time.
Henry V, portrayed throughout the cycle in the Colorado festival the last two years by the same actor (as Falstaff was in 2014), is a complex man. Torn between duty and the desire to enjoy his youth, Shakespeare made a great effort to show Henry’s complexity as he moves from Prince Hal to king. Bit by bit he rejects youthful folly, sometimes with two steps forward and then one step back, to become a conquering king whose rousing speeches (in Henry V) are some of the most quoted in Shakespeare.
I’ve been attending plays in Boulder for some time and lately the company seems to have taken a strong step forward in quality. The players are talented and the direction strong. I’m anxious to finish out the canon in the next few years and see where Boulder goes with the remaining plays on my list.