The Big Sir: Thoughts on Falstaff and the Festival
By John Ahlin
Over the next few weeks I will be writing blog posts about the joy of acting at the Festival and the honor of playing big Sir John Falstaff. Here is the first:
Very near the end of the last Harry Potter movie the screen goes black, and the words “Nineteen Years Later” appear just before we see Harry, Hermione, and Ron greatly changed, yet the same. This little blog post could begin with a black screen that says “Three Years Later.”
I was last in Cedar City in 2015 and had the very high honor of appearing in the very last Utah Shakespeare Festival play performed in the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. It was a night to remember. After portraying Sir John Falstaff in the final heart-wrenching moments of Henry IV Part Two, we had an emotional ceremony onstage, summoning the spirits and echoes of all the Shakespeare plays performed in that magnificent Wooden O. Then audience and actors together solemnly walked in the dark one block over to what can be only described as an indescribable mass of incomplete concrete, amidst a confusion of construction materials. Simple words of hope and pledges of continuing were expressed, and at the perfect moment a beacon was illuminated, shining brilliantly into the heavens. Well here I am, three years later, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, again playing Falstaff (and if physics is correct, that beacon is three light years away, on its way to infinity).
You can imagine, as a returning guest artist, what a thrill it is to see the magnificent Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre up and running and the gorgeous Utah Shakespeare Festival campus alive and bustling. And like Ron and Hermione and Harry, while everything is different, the spirit, the desire, the fire—the magic—which is the Festival’s true essence is the same. It remains alive, growing, vital and masterful. Simply put: new location, same inspiration.
I can happily report that I love performing on the Engelstad Theatre stage. The audience, which to me sets the Festival apart, is right there, laughing, cheering, and so easy to connect with. I see their faces, as the Sir John Falstaff depicted in Merry Wives often speaks to them directly.
While some scholars insist that this Falstaff doesn’t hold a candle to the great Falstaff of the Henry plays, as the actor charged with breathing life into one of literature’s giants, I can tell you—it’s the same guy. He still has the acumen, wit, and weariness of the world’s ironies with which Falstaff of the Henriad is blessed/cursed. He still has a blind spot to duplicity, never imagining Hal would ever shun him, and likewise, when Mistress Ford apparently responds affectionately, he genuinely believes she has genuine love for him. The possibly true legend has it that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Falstaff in love, and Shakespeare obliges. While Falstaff’s desperation for money is the spark, love is the flame that fuels and ultimately scorches him.