2 Henry IV (Colorado Shakespeare Festival) @ University Theater, Bolder, Colorado, 2014History

  • Joseph F. Stephenson

Henry IV, Part 2, at Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University Theater, Boulder, Colorado, 3 August 2014

Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson

The announcement that the venerable Colorado Shakespeare Festival had chosen to stage the seldom-performed Henry IV, Part 2 in its first-ever Original Practices production as part of its recent emphasis on Shakespeare’s history plays was met with great excitement by many. Indeed, the audience was told in a curtain speech that this second of two performances had sold out six weeks in advance. The result, both as an Original Practices piece and as a work of theater art generally, was overall mixed, yet established high hopes for future OP productions at this festival and perhaps other well-known Shakespeare festivals.

In a pre-show “preface” and in the aforementioned opening curtain speech, Producing Artistic Director and “facilitator” (though, he insisted, not the director) of the production Timothy Orr summarized briefly and effectively the essence of the Original Practices movement in Shakespeare performance. He then explained that, since it would be impossible to reduplicate all of the original constraints and circumstances of the period, the company had chosen to focus on these seven conditions: universal lighting, audience involvement, cue scripts, no director, no designers (especially for costumes), no recorded sound, and the presence of a prompter on stage. Some of these items produced a rich and varied production, some seemed rather insignificant to the outcome, while some proved a bit of a stretch for the festival’s initial foray into OP territory.

Orr told the audience that what they would see amounted to an “experiment,” conducted (at least in part) “just to learn, just to see how they did it,” and thus the emphasis was on the process as much as on the product that the audience consumed. Likewise, dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck noted in the program that “many different approaches to original practices” exist, and a company can either “reproduce the journey or the destination.” Plaudits to the company for not simply focusing on the end product, making this production’s experience with Original Practices a valuable mine for further study. On the other hand, expecting actors who were already performing a full repertoire of plays to learn another part—and to learn it in a short time from cue scripts and to rehearse without a director—may have been a bit optimistic. More on these fronts later.

The paramount importance of universal lighting to any OP production has been well established.[1] This requirement was easily accomplished merely by leaving the house lights on in the indoor University Theater. Even though some sections of the two-story house were much more illuminated than others, the actors—or “players,” as Orr called them in a welcome return to Shakespearean terminology—were indeed able to see the audience, as they made clear in a cordial post-show talkback facilitated by CSF veteran (Justice Shallow in this production) Geoffrey Kent.

The visibility of the audience made possible by universal lighting leads very directly to the second item that Orr wanted to emphasize in this production: the interaction between actors and audience members. It was perhaps inevitable that audience members, not used to OP performances, were at first a bit hesitant to react audibly unless they received a cue from the players, as they did in Act 1, scene 3, when Falstaff (Michael Winters) and the Lord Chief Justice (Peter Simon Hilton) successfully competed for approval from the audience. As the show progressed, the audience became more and more involved, lending a nice energy to the production.

Also successful was the decision not to use recorded sound. It was not so much the absence of recorded sound effects, but rather the welcome presence of the Boulder Renaissance Consort, that made this decision successful. Playing recorders and singing music from the period, these excellent musicians enhanced the performance before the opening scene and during the interval, as well as underscoring a few scenes. Recorded music, however appropriate or skillfully mixed, can never match the subtlety and vigor of live music by trained musicians participating in the performance. The lack of a costume designer resulted in some characters wearing the same period-suggestive costumes as in Part 1 and others choosing blue jeans and sneakers. Generally, though, this element of visual chaos was not overly distracting.

The use of cue scripts—which provide only a three-word cue and a character’s lines, rather than a complete script for all actors—is a relatively recently explored part of the OP theater community’s practice. Several workshops and productions, working from Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern’s groundbreaking Shakespeare in Parts, have shown that the use of cue scripts can keep actors on their toes and can lead to interesting attempts to interrupt other actors when the cue phrase is repeated within a speech. However, it was not evident that the use of cue scripts markedly impacted this production. It seems that this particular OP element affects the process a bit more than the product and probably could have been omitted in the company’s inaugural OP production, especially if it made the rehearsal process at all more difficult or confusing, as it became quickly evident that the actors could have used a bit more (or more effective) rehearsal time.

Orr warned the audience in the curtain speech that they would see a prompter, saying “We know Shakespeare had a prompter on stage.” I must disagree with Orr on this point, deferring to the likes of Tiffany Stern, whose article “Behind the Arras: The Prompter’s Place in the Elizabethan Theatre” makes clear that, for a variety of reasons, the prompter must have been “situated in the tiring-room” (111).[2] Nevertheless, the prompter for this performance, dressed in black and situated far stage left, was not much of a distraction. Indeed, one might have wished the players had made better use of the prompter, as quite a few simply carried scripts onstage. Some actors made an effort to hide the script in some sort of character-appropriate prop, but others simply carried the printed pages unapologetically. This is the sort of thing one gets used to in a staged reading, but the irregular use of scripts here, especially in one key scene—I will refrain from naming which out of deference to the actors—became quite a distraction.

Orr was careful to remind the audience of the shortened rehearsal time—just twenty hours—though he did not mention this in the context of Original Practices, but among the constraints of the company’s summer schedule. Knowing that the rehearsal time was limited, the decision to distribute scripts (and cue scripts, at that) to the actors only three weeks ahead of time was probably a bit too ambitious. In addition, the script should have been cut quite a bit more to make things easier on both the company and the audience. The 2:40 run time that seemed quite brisk for Part 1 in the matinee seemed a bit long in the evening for Part 2. This is a play that can withstand quite a bit of paring and still get its points across.

Among the remaining practices the company chose to embrace, the lack of a director was quite noticeable, and sadly not for the better. Whether and how characters bowed to the King was not consistent from scene to scene. Certain words, such as Shrewsbury and Lancaster, were not pronounced consistently, and the dreaded pronunciation “sir-RAH” for sirrah was even heard once. The coughing used by the King in Part 1 was not continued in Part 2. Most distressingly, though, the static use of a large and bulky set piece really weakened the production.

In Part 1, various pieces of the set were moved around and utilized effectively in various scenes. However, in Part 2, all the pieces were assembled and remained on stage throughout. The piece, designed for Part 1 by Caitlyn Ayer, was attractive enough, and when Brendan Milove as Rumor delivered the prologue, he made his way in and out of the various levels of the set quite effectively. After the prologue, however, the extensive higher level of the set was used mainly as a platform for the musicians, and the commanding presence of the set piece tended to force the actors into more or less a straight line across the front of the stage. Though Orr mentioned that the company had gone with “what works” rather than “interesting blocking,” it was the choice—though by whom is not clear—to keep the entire set piece on stage during the entire performance that governed most of the blocking. Most of the entrances were through an arch in the set piece center right, leading characters inevitably to the lip of the stage.

Many characters, however, entered through the house, necessitating a rather long walk along either the left or right wall and up to the one of several sets of stairs leading up to the stage—all the while invisible to many audience members seated in the balcony. As I have written elsewhere, this practice of entering through the house, ubiquitous in theater nowadays and lamentably common even in OP shows, is foreign to early modern drama—The Knight of the Burning Pestle being, in this case, the exception that proves the rule. Entering from the house can be distracting and confusing to audiences while allowing the company too easily to believe they have succeeded in connecting with the audience rather than work for the deeper emotional and experiential connection that should be the goal. However, speaking of entrances and exits, it should be noted that the proscenium stage at the University Theater did not have fixed or temporary doors up right and up left, desirable in an OP production to reproduce the conditions on Shakespeare’s stage.

Perhaps a different venue would have been more appropriate for an OP production. The decision to stage the play in the University Theater was guided by the fact that Part 1 had been staged there. Indeed, one major challenge the production faced was the fact that Part 1—which almost all of the audience had seen the afternoon previous to the evening performance of Part 2—was so very good, so very fresh, energetic, and compelling that any performance of Part 2 would have been hard pressed to live up to expectations. (There are reasons, most of them lurking in the text, why Part 1 is performed much more often than Part 2.) However, with the added handicaps that I have outlined here—especially the lack of a director and the combination of a long performance text and a short rehearsal time that led to problems with actors’ being off book—this performance of Henry IV, Part 2 was bound to suffer a bit in comparison to its precursor.

Nevertheless, the production was enjoyable, and the acting troupe Colorado Shakespeare brought together for this season shone. Ben Bonenfant as Hal continued the marvelous arc he had begun in the previous play, building on the chemistry he shared with Sam Gregory as King Henry IV. Vanessa Morosco introduced a vital spark of energy after the interval with her crafty Earl of Westmoreland, not to mention Joshua Archer’s turn as the shrewd John of Lancaster—two of the roles that are much better in Part 2 than Part 1. The previously mentioned Winters (performing, by the way, in all three Falstaff plays this summer, in addition to the role of Gonzalo in The Tempest) was a droll and, ultimately, vulnerable Falstaff. After spending so much time with these characters, members of the audience felt the sting when Bonenfant as the newly crowned Henry V rebuffed his old friend with the line “I know thee not, old man.”

After the final lines of the production, the audience, invested as they were with the story, the characters, and the day in toto, rose in a thunderous ovation, proving this experiment with OP an overall success. The bravery of Orr and his staff for taking on this project was admirable, and it is fervently to be hoped that Colorado Shakespeare Festival will continue to offer Original Practices productions as part of its future seasons.


" (Photo by  Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado) "

King Henry (Sam Gregory) speaks to Prince John (Joshua Archer) while Westmoreland (Vanessa Morosco) looks on in this image from Henry IV, Part 1. Set design by Caitlin Ayer, photo by Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado


Reviewer bio:

Joseph F. Stephenson earned his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and is an Associate Professor of English at Abilene Christian University. His scholarship focuses on early modern drama in performance, including a recent article in Parergon on the anonymous 1599 play A Larum for London.In Abilene, Joe teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in British literature (especially Shakespeare) and serves as the resident dramaturg for the Abilene Shakespeare Festival.


[1] See, for example, the essay “Who We Are” on the website of the American Shakespeare Center.

[2] Stern, Tiffany. “Behind the Arras: The Prompter’s Place in the Shakespearean Theatre.” Theatre Notebook 55 (2001): 110-18. Print.

Author: Joseph F. Stephenson

Joseph F. Stephenson, Ph. D., is the James W. Culp Distinguished Professor of English at Abilene Christian University (Texas). His scholarship focuses on early modern drama in performance, especially English plays that feature Dutch characters. Joe teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in British literature (especially Shakespeare) both in Abilene and for ACU’s study abroad programme in Oxford. His current major project is a scholarly edition of an unpublished manuscript play, a restoration comedy called The Dutch Lady.