Electrifying! Captivating! Absorbing! Yes, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) performance of the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part two, and Henry V) is superbly rendered while illuminating themes of: youthful indiscretion, revenge, guilt of conscience, honor, leadership, ill weaved ambition, betrayal, divine right, redemption, and reconciliation. The history of the House of Lancaster to the British throne is depicted in the RSC’s titled series, King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, under the direction of Gregory Doran at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn until April 30, 2016. By the end of the King and Country Cycle (April 30, 2016), the RSC will have performed it five hundred and five times in over twelve theaters on three continents. Celebrating the quarter centennial of Shakespeare’s death this month, the Folger Shakespeare Library via BAM Harvey Theater, contemporaneously with the RSC’s month long residency, is showcasing an exhibit extracted from historical documents relating to Shakespeare folklore in New York City during the nineteenth century and exhibiting original quartos of Shakespeare’s work.
I had the pleasure of seeing all four plays, and attending both a BAM hosted luncheon and a reception celebrating the RSC’s work (twelve hours of Shakespeare in four days). Meeting and conversing with actors and other members of the RSC and Shakespeare enthusiasts was inspiring. I spent the last six weeks immersing myself in the texts so that I would enhance my experience during each performance. Stupendously and boldly performed, these performances amplify the text, and aid in the understanding of difficult scenes of the play, making it easy to follow. Having seen all of the performances in different sections of the theater, I must say that the front row as well as the center orchestra had the effect of keeping me enthralled. All of the actors give noteworthy performances and many have a vast repertoire, but the pivotal characters make for memorable thrilling performances. David Tennant plays Richard II, Jasper Britton plays the aging Henry IV, Alex Hassell plays both the wanton Prince Hal and the charismatic Henry V, Jennifer Kirby plays bold Lady Percy and enchanting Katherine, Matthew Needham plays the hotheaded Hotspur, and Anthony Sher plays the comedic Sir John Falstaff. The scenes at the Boars Head Tavern in Eastcheap are creatively performed adding more levity and hilarity to other comedic scenes. The creative team includes Stephen Brimson Lewis as set designer, Tim Mitchell as lighting designer, and Martin Slavin as sound designer. Through the strength of the creative team and the actors, one can see the intensity of battles, the mutual affection and admiration of some characters toward one another, as well as the disdain and raw emotion resulting from the exacerbation of conflict displayed through all four plays. Although both the Prologue and the Chorus encourage us to use our imaginations to develop the scenes, the creative team uses great props, authentic costumes, makeup design, Elizabethan set design, lighting, and piercing battle cries, and other thunderous sounds to catapult and orient the audience to both England and France during wartime.
The story arc follows the growth and development of the reign of Richard II, his usurpation (and eventual murder), the crowning of King Henry IV, his death, and his son’s rise to power. Both Henry IV and Henry V lament their actions as time progresses. Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, has a coterie of unsavory dissolute friends, and therefore, disappoints his father. Hal, however has a plan to behave recklessly, and then at an appropriate time, he says that he will change his behavior by becoming an upstanding prince, thereby gaining a deeper respect, honor, and admiration from others. During a fierce battle, he kills Hotspur, his rival for his father’s affection. Prince Hal, eager to become king, does not realize as his father does that, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”After his father dies, he becomes Henry V, betrays Falstaff, and engages in behavior fitting a king. Eager to prove himself after the French Dauphin insults him, he engages in a series of battles against France, most notably, at Agincourt. Giving impassioned speeches, he rallies his troops, and consults and pays homage to God for all of his victories. Neither King Henry V nor the King of France is without loss, although the King of France suffers greater loss of men. At the end of the play, Henry V wins the final battle at Agincourt, redeems himself, makes demands to the King of France, and marries Katherine, the French king’s daughter, and secures both the English and the French kingdoms.
The actors deserve great plaudits and accolades for their believable performances, for their performances reflect verisimilitude at its best. Richard II, via David Tennant, was contrite at the end of his reign. His emotion, reflected in his countenance, and in his poeticism enables us to see his regret. Tennant’s acting range is evident as we see his youthful folly turn to deep regret as he laments his loss of the throne and his defeat. Alex Hassell, as Prince Hal, and King Henry V, perform in three of the plays to outstanding applause. Specifically, we see Hassell’s stunning transformation from immaturity to a victorious empathetic leader. His performance is a bildungsroman like, coming of age depiction of a leader with vision. We see his youthful indiscretions, his emotional development, and his growth as a man as he leads his army into battle. Delivering impassioned speeches that strike at the heart of the listener, Hassell’s demeanor shows his leadership capabilities, his honor, and his redemption. He is indeed charismatic, humble, tender, yet fierce. Hassell through his movements and his impassioned words, reflect a king’s status, even if he is not the rightful heir to the throne. Yes, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Yes, before Falstaff’s death, he knew nothing. He even acknowledges that God fought for him and his men. This growth is highly reflective in Hassell’s visage and movement, for it is evident that he has shaken off his “young wanton and effeminate” ways. Additionally, Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is unparalleled. We feel his joy when he is inebriated with sack, as well as his inability to accept Hal’s severance of friendship when Hal, the newly crowned king, says, “I know thee not old man.” Falstaff, in parts one and two of Henry IV, through the “fat”costume design and his boisterous laughter, makes the play riotous. Although Sher appears to be the primary star, Hassell through a fine performance shows us, that they are both equally capable of garnering applause and holding the audience’s attention. Jennifer Kirby and Alex Hassell playfully perform a beautiful love scene with great chemistry at the close of the plaWithout the success of the creative team’s synergy, these performances would be without critical acclaim. The music and the sound design reflect both the action and change in mood throughout the story arc. Trumpets play during battle scenes, people harmoniously sing to soothe weary souls, explosions rock the audience, and special effects embedded within the stage mimic fire. All the creative sounds enhance the performances, without usurpation of the acting as the dominant means of conveying the story. Both the costumes and the props are representative of sixteenth century England. Soldiers wear armor and use weaponry through well choreographed battle scenes. Members of various royal families are robed in regalia. To distinguish the French from the English, each is robed in specific colors; the English wear the insignia of the Anglican Church. Members of the clergy wear habits fitting the clergy with large crosses adorning their robes (King Henry V also adorns a large cross). Characters of low status such as Bardolph and Peto wear clothing commensurate with their status.
This cycle of plays includes some of the best Shakespearean performances I have ever seen. If you have been afraid of Shakespeare, give it a chance. See one of the shows. Few tickets remain, but tickets become available through the standby line. If that is your only recourse, arrive two hours before the start of the performance. Luck may find you. Seeing one or all of these plays will bring joy, and the time will be well spent.
Personal Note: I had the opportunity to take my kids (students) to see a daytime performance of Henry V this week. They, without reservation, loved it. No one slept! No one complained about the performance lasting three hours. Everyone was engrossed in the action, in the comic relief, and in the stage and sound design. Next week, two actors from the RSC will visit my students and conduct an acting lesson. Moreover, we will have an online conversation through Google Hangout with the RSC. I prepared them for this production through both the reading and performance of selected scenes from the trilogy. Next month, at their culminating activity, they will perform selected scenes at BAM Fisher. I will keep everyone abreast of the outcome of this performance as well as the outcome of both the in-class visit and the online conversation with the artists.