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King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings

The Royal Shakespeare Company arrives in Brooklyn with an epic repertory of Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V.

David Tennant (elevated, center) leads the company of William Shakespeare's Richard II, directed by Gregory Doran, for the Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM's Harvey Theater.
(© Richard Termine)

New York audiences have a rare opportunity to experience the "Henriad" (that's Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V), now being presented in its entirety at BAM's Harvey Theater by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the title King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings. Viewing the Henriad over one weekend is the Shakespearean equivalent of watching the original Star Wars trilogy in one sitting: It gives you a clear sense of the grandeur of the story and long-term development of the characters. In this excellent production (helmed by RSC artistic director Gregory Doran), national mythology takes center stage. This is not just the story of Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) coming of age, but the transformation of England from a feudal society into a modern nation-state.

Doran gives us an immediate sense of 1398 England in the opening moments of Richard II. The Duke of Gloucester lies in state. Cloistered in the stage-left box, three nuns sing a requiem mass in the straight, clear polyphony of the high Middle Ages, transforming the Harvey Theater into a cathedral (Paul Englishby's original music is spot-on throughout). Stage right, three trumpeters herald the approach of King Richard II (David Tennant), who has been called upon to settle a dispute between Gloucester's nephew, Henry Bolingbroke (Jasper Britton), and Thomas Mowbray (Christopher Middleton), who Bolingbroke blames for Gloucester's death.

Richard II (David Tennant) threatens the Duke of Aumerle (Sam Marks) as Sir Stephen Scroop (Keith Osborn) looks on in Richard II.
(© Richard Termine)

Tennant plays a sniveling, foppish Richard, whose arbitrary judgment and cavalier disregard for the rights of his vassals seem directly related to his outsize sense of divine entitlement. As Bolingbroke deposes Richard and becomes Henry IV, Tennant's performance becomes increasingly unhinged (and perversely, more hilarious). His ornate robes give way to a simple white gown, while his untamed locks give him a Christ-like appearance: It's the ideal look for martyrdom. As he loses his kingdom, Tennant makes us feel a strange mixture of amusement and pity.

If Richard is a bad but legitimate ruler, Henry IV is a good but illegitimate one (the untangling of legitimacy and birthright becomes a primary concern of these slyly democratic dramas). As Henry IV, Britton portrays a haunted man, consumed with worry that his own son, Prince Hal (Alex Hassell), will prove as worthless a king as Richard. While Hotspur (the handsome and fiery Matthew Needham) plots rebellion, Hal spends much of Part I drinking and whoring with his best friend, Sir John Falstaff (Antony Sher).

Jasper Britton (center) plays Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV) in Richard II.
(© Richard Termine)

Sher does not disappoint in his portrayal of the most beloved scoundrel ever conceived by Shakespeare. Every line is perfectly timed. His audacious lies and tall tales are delivered with such relish that he regularly has the audience rolling in the aisles with just a passing glance. Yet there's sadness to Sher's Falstaff as well: He limps across the stage, betraying his character's gout and pox. His voice seems to curdle, as if he's slowly drowning from the inside. This is not a healthy man.

Henry IV, Part 2 is the most neglected play of the tetralogy, and there's a reason for that: Like a straight-to-video Disney sequel, much of the play's action feels like an excuse to give the audience more of their favorite character, the hilarious Falstaff. Still, out of all of the plays, this is the one that gives the most attention to the common men and women of England: people like the "entrepreneur" Mistress Quickly (the endearing but unintelligible Sarah Parks) and "contract entertainer" Doll Tearsheet (the effervescent Emma King). A scene in which Falstaff recruits army conscripts among peasants with names like Mouldy (an appropriately disgusting Simon Yadoo) and Feeble (Nicholas Gerard-Martin, claiming a big moment from his small part) proves to be far more than mere comic relief. The most fit soldier, Bullcalf (a hearty Obioma Ugoala), avoids service by paying a bribe. As much as we love Falstaff, we realize that Hal must dump him so that his reign (and England) may thrive.

Antony Sher plays Sir John Falstaff and Alex Hassell plays Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1.
(© Richard Termine)

Hal's abandonment of Falstaff is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the cycle, especially in light of the palpable filial love that Hassell and Sher develop between their characters. By contrast, Britton and Hassell craft a father-son relationship that is devoid of any real warmth, but still absolutely believable. By the end of Part 2, the emaciated Henry IV councils his son: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days."

Heeding dad's advice, a matured Henry V (now starring in his own play) leads a campaign to conquer France, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt and his rousing Saint Crispin's Day speech, in which he announces to his outnumbered soldiers, "For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother." Hassell delivers this promise of shared glory for shared sacrifice with muted intensity and great sincerity. He's not a grand, untouchable king, but a man full of doubts and worries, nonetheless succeeding in an office in which more confident rulers have failed. It feels a world away from the prissy formality of Richard's court.

As Hassell assumes the role of the most triumphant king in the Shakespeare canon, he never allows us to lose sight of the charming rapscallion we first met in Part 1. Rather, he uses those skills he honed in the tavern in his new position, especially during a delightful scene in which he woos Princess Katherine of France (Jennifer Kirby avec bon accent) with his winning smile. We cheer their kiss as we would the end of any of Shakespeare's great comedies.

Alex Hassell plays King Henry V in Shakespeare's Henry V.
(© Stephanie Berger)

This amazing journey would be impossible without the expert work of set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, who has wrapped the Harvey proscenium in simple scaffolding. This allows Doran to stage in levels while maintaining the open space that is necessary for four plays of such an epic scale. Martin Slavin's sound design helps augment the battle scenes, but occasionally seems a little too tinny and canned for a production that so effectively employs live musicians. Terry King's fight choreography is breathtaking and realistic, especially a jarring punch in the face that comes near the end of Henry V.

The Henriad is an astounding and sweeping tale, brought to glorious life by the careful work of Doran and his Royal Shakespeare Company. Catch it while it lasts, because another mounting this good is unlikely to come around for a long time.