Last year, St. Louis Shakespeare mounted an inferior production of the intriguing Henry IV, part 1. Undaunted, the company is now completing the two-play cycle with a Henry IV, part 2 that is superior to its predecessor in every respect -- which is to say, it's watchable.
There is a lot to watch. All fifteenth-century England is on display in this tapestry of rebellion and insurrection. The plot is crammed with scenes at court, on the battlefield and in pubs. Viewers are exposed to everyone from royals to newly recruited soldiers, from grieving widows to slatternly tavern hostesses. Though the now-dying King Henry makes occasional appearances, as does his irresponsible son Prince Hal, the play's thru-line -- indeed, its very lifeline -- is to be found in the ongoing misadventures of the incorrigible Sir John Falstaff, arguably the most vital character Shakespeare ever created.
Alan Knoll's portrayal is a felicitous synthesis of performer and role. One senses that Knoll is not a trained Shakespearean actor, but as Falstaff states, "A good wit will make use of anything." Knoll uses all the instincts and technique at his command to make Sir John accessible. Knoll is a natural clown, but his portly knight is not content merely to elicit laughter.
This Falstaff is a dissolute Humpty Dumpty headed for a great fall; he is a nervous breakdown about to happen. His gloves are cut off at the palm, and each naked, extended finger becomes a nerve end with its own fidgety story to tell. When he hugs Prince Hal (R. Travis Estes), and the future king slips neatly out of the embrace, Knoll holds onto the empty air with a gaze that is both rueful and pathetic. It's as if the actor and director Deanna Jent have worked through every line, searching for meaning and (that very un-Elizabethan noun) subtext. The result is a fully realized performance.
But here's the problem -- and it's a problem not easily solved when the play's two evenings are staged twelve months apart. Henry IV is not about Falstaff.
To back up a bit: The plots of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies adhere to the formality of a beginning, a middle and an end. But his history plays are not so tidy. With the histories, one story line is likely to segue into the next. The Bard's running account of Henry IV begins in Richard II when the treasonous Henry usurps the crown by arranging for the murder of a legitimate king, and then continues on through the two plays that bear his name.
Henry IV, part 2 is a primer about leadership, betrayal, responsibility and maturity. It's about a corrupt king (the authoritative Richard Lewis) who approaches death fearing that his errant son, soon to be king himself, has learned nothing from the father's mistakes. But an audience cannot be expected to follow these themes, for the simple reason that the setup, and most of the exposition, was established in Henry IV, part 1. When the king utters the memorable line, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," how many viewers realize that the uneasiness stems from Henry's having been a murderer? To state it simply, Henry IV, part 2 builds to an emotionally strong ending, but its beginning and middle are weak.
Director Jent tries to camouflage the play's inherent obfuscation by staging the evening with visual fluidity. Movement is a good beginning, but it's not a solution. This Henry, rather like a massive block of ice from which huge hunks need to be shed if it is to become an ice sculpture, requires brutal cutting if its still-contemporary themes are to resonate with an audience.
Little wonder then that we, like generations of theatergoers before us, instead gravitate to the flamboyant Sir John, that robust man "of all humours."
If this Falstaff seems more influenced by Howdy Doody's Mister Bluster than by Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight, we can thank Knoll for something too infrequently seen in Shakespeare: a completely original creation.