Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been a major staple of the St. Louis theatre scene, and an important fixture of late Spring in Forest Park since their first production, Romeo and Juliet, in 2001. Now, after seemingly perfecting their tried and true routine of producing one full-scale Shakespeare play per year, Executive Director Rick Dildine and his carefully assembled creative team are trying something new. Starting next week with the opening of a condensed version of the Bard’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and continuing the following week with the premiere of Henry V, for the first time in the festival’s history the feature presentation will be a cycle of plays rather than just one. After the opening of Henry V, both plays will be presented on alternating nights until closing night on June 15th. It marks an ambitious new period in the history of the festival, as well as an exciting adventure for all involved.
The idea for producing this cycle of plays came from Dildine’s desire for more of a true festival format for the Forest Park productions, and as a recognition of the scope and vision of Shakespeare’s history plays. “For the past four years, we’ve been talking about what does a festival look like? And I think that a festival is more than one thing,” says Dildine. “So this is the beginning of fully realizing a festival format. And I didn’t want to do just any two plays. I wanted to do something more that felt like an epic event; that felt like something unique and exciting. And what we have at our disposal is that we have this history of plays, of how Shakespeare thought about history. So we said, what if we did an epic history moment? That’s when I came up with the idea of doing Henry IV part 1 and 2 and Henry V.“
When asked about whether the recent BBC television production of the plays, called The Hollow Crown and aired in the United States on PBS, had any influence on the decision to present these plays at the Festival, Dildine says it did not. He refers to the timing of the TV show’s airing as a “happy coincidence” in that now the plays will be fresh in the minds of more of the general public. While he says the specific plan for this production began about four years ago and has been in the serious planning stages for two, the original inspiration came from an experience Dildine had years ago as a young actor, when he was able to see a production of the cycle of plays often referred to as the “Henriad”, which consists of Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. “To watch all of those plays happen in a weekend with one cast in rotating rep,” he says, “was one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life. And I said that if I was ever in a position to share that experience with other people, I wanted to do it. So that opportunity, it took four years to make it happen here, but it has come to us. And then to find out that the BBC produced all of them, it’s just a bonus”.
With the idea firmly in place, Dildine’s next task was to recruit directors for the individual productions, as well as a design team. Tim Ocel, who is new to the Festival but has directed several plays in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, was brought in to direct Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Bruce Longworth, who had previously directed SFSTL’s productions of Hamlet and Othello, will direct Henry V. Apparently, the choice as to who would direct which play was relatively easy. According to Longworth. “[Ocel] and Rick had a conversation in which he expressed interest in Henry IV, and Rick mentioned that to me and I said, well that’s just fine because I express interest in Henry V, so everything works out for everyone “.
Both directors are excited and passionate about the material and the project in general. Longworth refers to Henry V as a “thrilling, thrilling story”, and adds that it is “a story about courage, faith, and loyalty. A story of a young man who is learning how to be a king, and what it means to be a king. He learns about the leadership required, the tremendous burden of responsibility involved, the sense of loneliness that comes with being a king. These are exciting themes.”
For Ocel, the Henry IV plays represent a man’s choice between chaos and law, as well as detailing England’s growth as a more civilized nation. “And I do think that’s what happens in Henry IV particularly,” he explains,”that with Prince Hal, that he could decide to hang with Falstaff and allow chaos back into the kingdom through that kind of bacchanalian Dionysian force that Falstaff and what he represents is, or he could choose to lead the country to become the next King, and choose the law–which in our play is represented by the Lord Chief Justice–and say that law has a place in the world of civilized men”.
“There’s something about that really somewhat complete arc within the larger arc of the chronicles, of the history chronicles, that is really truthful,” Ocel adds. “And so the plays do chronicle England’s steps toward civilization.The other interesting thing that audiences I don’t think realize is that, because Henry IV usurped the crown from Richard II, that his eldest son who is line to be Henry V was not brought up to be a prince. He was not brought up to be king. So, it seems that Prince Hal is having greatness thrust upon him, and a good part of play, I think, is him deciding whether he wants that or not.”
Ocel was also faced with the particular challenge of combining two separate plays into one. Majoring on the main themes, as well as keeping track of the overall word count, helped him decide what to keep and what to cut in order to create a playable script. Describing the process, he explains that he “just took both plays, put them all in a row and said, OK, here is five to six hours’ worth of play. In order for us to play in the park, the play has to be 2 hours and 45 minutes or less, to get out of the park by 11:00. So I just started whittling down, and before I whittled down I had to decide what I wanted to focus on in terms of the arc of these two plays being together. And I decided that the thing to really focus on was the triangle of the three major players, which is Henry IV and Falstaff at either end of a line, and Prince Hal in the middle of that at the top of triangle, and Hal has to pick between those two, essentially father figures. But that really was the thrust of the evening that we’re going to see in the park.” He also points out how Prince Hal, in a way, becomes somewhat of a surrogate for the audience in terms of mentally processing his dilemma, in that “[the audience] needs to make the judgment call on their own as to what we might do individually, if we were in that position. The play really believes in civilization and mankind moving forward, which is about justice and about law and all of that.”
Ultimately, what Ocel came up with was a script in which “two-thirds of what the audience is going to see here is Part 1, and then the final third of the play is Part 2.” The script also required a great deal of re-reading to make sure it would make sense to an audience. “Once you have the cutting in front of you,” he explains “you have to forget that you know any other information than the words that are in front of you in this particular version, and say does this play make sense? We are not assuming that anybody who comes to see this knows the plays. It would be nice if they do, but you do not have to know, because the play will tell you what you need to know, as Shakespeare always did. He pretty much told you the stuff that you need to know.”
Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park
There has been a great deal of collaboration in producing a cohesive cycle of plays that will feature the same ensemble across both productions. Both directors have worked with the plays’ designers, such as set designer Scott C. Neale and costume desinger Dottie Marshall Englis, to achieve a consistent look for the shows. “We’re both working with the same design team,” says Longworth, “so we both have ideas of what the set should look like and the costumes, and so there’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration with the design team to come up with a look that serves both plays. We went through the casting process together, Tim and I, along with Rick, so we saw the same folks auditioned and collectively chose the company. It is the same company of 22 actors in both productions, so there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of how the shows will be rehearsed concurrently.”
In terms of the shows’ overall aesthetic, Dildine explains that “we’re setting both plays in the same time period, so we’re using one set and one aesthetic of costuming.” Longworth elaborates, describing how the show will have essentially a traditional historical setting, but more of an abstract set. “The time setting is in period, in terms of costumes, or at least nominally in period. The settings you will see onstage is not a literal setting. You know, you’re not going to see a 15th Century building. You’re going to something that is much more abstract.” As for the costumes, according to Longworth, they “will look to be period costumes although there are elements in the costuming that have… a bit more kind of modern flavor. But they will look to the casual eye very much as period costumes.”
The casting process involved Dildine and both directors, and will feature what Dildine describes as “a who’s who of St. Louis actors”, including Jim Butz, Joneal Joplin, Jerry Vogel, Michael James Reed, Kari Ely, Kelley Weber, and more. In addition to the local there are also several performers who have been brought in from other parts of the country. “It’s a very talented ensemble of people,” says Dildine. Longworth refers to them as “a rock and roll company” and adds that “the actors you get to do Shakespeare, they do Shakespeare because they love it, so it’s always great fun working with actors who are excited about the project you’re working on together.”
One challenging aspect of casting was that, while some performers such as Butz (who plays Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V) will be playing the same character throughout both plays, others will be playing multiple roles. Ocel explains the process, mentioning how the actors’ auditions often dictated what different roles they would play. “We would… make doubling decisions based on the actors standing in front of us,” he says, “and what made the most sense with their physicality, their age, their fight ability, that kind of thing, as opposed to us… sticking with some kind of paperwork notion about who should double in what scene.”
Both plays have been rehearsing at the same time, starting in April and leading up to the opening of Henry IV next week, and then Henry V the following week. Although the plays will normally alternate performance nights, there will be two Saturdays in which both plays will be presented in the same day. As Dildine explains, “Henry IV will begin at 4:30 in the afternoon, in broad sunlight. It will go until about 7:30, when we will take an hour-long break, and we’ll invite everyone to take the break at the same time. And then at 8:30, we’ll begin Henry V.” There will also be an intermission in the middle of each individual play, providing for a total of three breaks throughout the performance day.
This all promises to be a unique experience for the audience and the beginning of a new era for SFSTL. Although Dildine isn’t planning to do another cycle of plays in the park next year, he envisions expanding to more projects outside the park. “We’ll go back to doing one play in the park [next year]”, he says, “but there will be other plays that we will present in other ways during our season time.”
As for what this year’s production means for the future of SFSTL and theatre in St. Louis, Dildine is adamant in his optimism. “I think this is a major moment for the institution, as an institution that is capable of producing a season of work. We’ve been building to this moment, with other programs in the schools, in the streets. And now building upon that work in the park, that’s what I think is going to be exciting for people, to see the artistic excellence and the professional quality of one of only 12 free Shakespeare festivals in the country, right here in St. Louis. And the city has something to celebrate, with this institution.”
The set has been assembled in Shakespeare Glen, and the space is being made ready to accommodate the thousands of audience members who are expected to attend over the month-long performance season. With a classic story and sweeping historical theme, these plays represent some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated work. Ocel even goes so far to say that he thinks Henry IV part 1 “could be [Shakespeare’s] greatest play”, adding that he thinks it’s even better than Hamlet. It remains to be seen how well this production will be received, but with all care and thought that have been put into the process of presenting it, this project promises to be something truly exceptional.
The nearly completed set.
Henry IV parts 1 and 2 opens in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park on May 17th, and Henry V opens on May 24th, with both plays playing on alternating nights until June 15th. For more information see the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis official website.
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