Among the star names who have traveled to New York with the company are David Tennant (“Dr. Who” from 2005 – 2010,) Jane Lapotaire (Tony Award for Piaf), Sir Antony Sher (Broadway’s Primo and Stanley, Tony Award Nomination) and Julian Glover, whose film credits go back to Tom Jones, For Your Eyes Only, Nicholas and Alexandra, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and is currently appearing on Game of Thrones as “Grand Maester Pycelle.”
The flexible unit set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis for all four plays uses an open stage with scaffolding on the sides and a bridge that occasionally descends to connect up with it, as well as projections and various set pieces which appear when needed. A back wall of wooden slats used in the first three plays appears to deteriorate as the chronicle goes on, representing the passage of time. This fluidity allows for a swift transition between scenes, which along with some trimming of the long list of dukes and earls, allows for the relatively short running times of each play. Live musicians, particularly trumpeters, appear on the upper level of the scaffolding at appropriate times playing Paul Englishby’s original music.
The four plays travel from a medieval monarch who refused to listen to his advisors to a great modern king who has learned to listen to take his subjects into consideration. This series of history chronicles telling the story of the rise of the House of Lancaster begins with Richard II, about the tumultuous reign and fall of a weak, indecisive and arbitrary monarch who believes in the divine right of kings. The play alternates between the court of Richard and the rebellion of the unfairly exiled Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Herford and later King Henry IV.
David Tennant’s Richard I is a dandified imperious king, taking to wearing a different ornate robe in every scene until his deposition when he reaches tragic heights dressed in all white, and looking Christ-like with his long shoulder length blonde hair. Effete and effeminate, he hints at a latent homosexual leaning which might explain his predilection for being surrounded by inappropriate young men like Bushy (Martin Bassindale), Bagot (Nicholas Gerard-Martin) and Green (Robert Gilbert) who hasten his downfall. Other memorable performances include a compelling Jane Lapotaire as the grieving widow of the murdered Duke of Gloucester and Julian Glover as a gloomy and fatalistic John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle. Leigh Quinn as Richard’s Queen has a childlike innocence that suggests she has no sway over her husband.
The second play, Henry IV, Part I, for many years nicknamed Hotspur, is a story of power, honor and rebellion. Although now king, the illegitimate ruler Henry IV is guilty about removing Richard but he has to immediately deal with a new rebellion, that of the Percy family that helped him gain the throne. Infuriated by his arrogant treatment, Harry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, known as Hotspur, takes the side of Lord Edmund Mortimer, the legitimate heir to Richard, and causes opposition to Henry in Scotland and Wales. Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, a Machiavellian scion to the throne, acts as profligate as possible hanging out with the dissolute old man, Sir John Falstaff and his cronies at the Boar’s Head Tavern, Eastcheap, London, drinking, whoring and thieving. As he tells us in a famous soliloquy that when he reforms, he will be hailed even more than if he had been a model son. This puts a coldness between father and son until Prince Hal rises to the occasion and confronts Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury to help end the rebellion.
Sir Antony Sher, padded to rotund glory and bewigged with a huge unkempt white mane, may be giving the most accomplished performances in the four plays. His Falstaff’s wit and comic timing as well as his lies and continual pursuit of pleasure is a wonder to behold and he totally inhabits the character. His joie de vivre is truly infectious. As King Henry IV, Jasper Britton is a suitably troubled, complex man, haunted by his deeds and his ambition. Matthew Needham’s Hotspur is less a man of rash emotions (which is how he is usually played) than a heroic man of conscience, a big performance.
Alex Hassell, who appears as Prince Hal in three plays, brings the lustiness of youth and adventure to this play. Jennifer Kirby as Hotspur’s wife gives as good as she gets, knowing how to rule her warrior husband, with just the right comeback. The Eastcheap crowd is also notable: Sarah Parks as a lusty Mistress Quickly, (innkeeper of the Boar’s Head Tavern), Sam Marks’ loyal Ned Poins (companion of Prince Hal), and Joshua Richards’ Bardolph and Martin Bassindale’s Peto, Falstaff’s dissipated cronies.
The rarely staged Henry IV, Part II picking up with the end of the previous play, is a study in the burden of power, ageing and atonement for past sins. The rebellion of Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, a sturdy Sean Chapman, and the Archbishop of York (an elegant Jim Hooper) continues to plague King Henry IV as he grows more and more ill. However, he is equally troubled by Prince Hal’s return to Falstaff and his dissolute ways. The Chief Justice (a stern Simon Thorp) warns Falstaff that he will be kept away from Prince Hal due to his bad influence. The king’s forces are under the banner of Prince John (Martin Bassindale), the king’s younger son, along with a ragtag regiment under Falstaff. The rebellion is put down through the political ruse of Prince John, while the king finds Prince Hal (who has thought he has died) leaving his room with the crown. The play ends with the coronation of a more mature Prince Hal, now King Henry V, who turns his back on his old playmate Falstaff.
While many of the same characters appear from Henry IV, Part I, there are a series of new comic characters. Falstaff’s hilarious recruiting scene introduces us to the pompous Justice Shallow of Oliver Ford Davis and the daffy Justice Silence of Jim Hooper, as well as the recruits who live up to their strange names: Simon Yadoo’s Mouldy, Matthew Needham’s Shadow, Leigh Quinn’s Wart, Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Feeble and Obioma Ugoala’s Bullcalf. Back at the Boar’s Head Tavern, we meet the riotous cronies of Falstaff, Emma King’s slutty Doll Tearsheet and Antony Byrne’s pugnacious Pistol. Just as Doran’s Henry V will use a narrator dressed in contemporary clothes, Byrne appears in a Rolling Stones t-shirt to open the play as an amusing Rumour.
Henry V depicts reconciliation, kingship and a balanced rule. Convinced of his claim to the kingdom of France, the new King Henry V sails across the channel and takes Honfleur. While the King of France readies his forces, his daughter Princess Katherine attempts to learn English with the help of her companion Alice. Rejecting the French Herald’s offer of ransom, Henry tours his camp in disguise on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in order to listen to his men. An English victory is confirmed, and as part of the peace settlement Henry woos and wins the hand of the French princess.
Oliver Ford Davies, well known to Americans from many BBC-Masterpiece Theatre presentations, is a very rational and prudent Chorus who narrates throughout this chronicle play which covers a great deal of geographic territory. Alex Hassell is a very low-key Henry in this play and his “Saint Crispin Day” rallying speech makes little impression. However, he seems ever more mature as the play progresses and we are assured that he will be a very honorable king. Among the comic scenes are the interactions of the Welsh officer Fluellen (Joshua Richards), the English officer Gower (Obioma Ugoala), the Scottish officer Jam (Simon Yadoo) and the Irish officer MacMorris (Andrew Westfield) with their identifiable accents and their national pride.
Simon Thorp and Jane Lapotaire are authoritative as the King and Queen of France. Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine and Leigh Quinn as her lady-in-waiting Alice are hilarious in the English lesson scene that they enact, and then later when approached by King Henry. Other French characters who create strong impressions are Keith Osborn’s Montjoy, the French Herald, and Daniel Abbot as Monsieur Le Fer, a French prisoner of war. This play makes fine use of Stephen Brimson Lewis’ atmospheric projections for the battle scenes and Terry King’s vivid fight choreography is much in evidence.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings is a magnificent achievement and a fitting tribute in this 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Not only are the four plays an accessible presentation of what is often confusing for Americans unversed in British history, but taken together they are a very great study in the use and abuse of power and authority in this year of our own contentious political wranglings. Gregory Doran’s unfussy and intelligible productions set a benchmark by which others will be measured and offers star performances that should become legendary.
King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings (Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II and Henry V performed in rotating repertory) (through May 1, 2016)
Royal Shakespeare Company
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.BAM.org
Running time: all plays are between three and three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission each