Adhaar Desai (Bard College)
After one grows accustomed to the sufficiently epic proportions of the second tetralogy at BAM, the elegant sets, live musicians, and explosive pyrotechnics give way to the sequence’s more enduring pleasures. The intimate attention director Gregory Doran gives each character trains us to perceive how the little things—an image, a gesture, a laugh—reverberate across the cycle and figure in miniature the broad rhythms and clamorous repetitions of history.
Richard II, featuring a dynamic performance by a tidal David Tennant, ends with the ghost of Richard appearing on the balcony to haunt a gasping Bolingbroke. By the start of Henry IV pt. 1, Richard’s martyred form has become a hanging statue of Christ, before which a penitent Bolingbroke lies “shaken.” Such forms of indirect continuity allow the plays to work well in isolation (though perhaps 2H4 demands most of audiences), but the way Doran allows them to draw upon one another is often revelatory. Altogether, the sequence foregrounds how each of Shakespeare’s kings share the same impossible bind of being committed to “tradition, form, and ceremonious duty” while also being individuals who “live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends.”
As the deposed Richard warns while looking into a cracked mirror, a king’s “brittle glory” easily becomes “a hundred shivers,” each one reflecting a different “shadow.” Through this fractured lens, a small prank Bolingbroke plays upon Hotspur (a strikingly complex portrayal by Matthew Needham) in Richard II can seem to find reflection in his son’s disposition in 1 Henry IV. John of Gaunt’s tenderness towards the banished Bolingbroke in the first play similarly prepares us for Bolingbroke’s surprisingly touching first encounter with his own son. This scene, misleadingly foreshadowed in the tavern by Falstaff and Hal’s “play extempore” anticipating the king’s stern chiding, foregrounds Bolingbroke’s shame rather than his anger. The king recalls his sins and worries that “for all the world, / As thou art to this hour was Richard then.” When Bolingbroke lists the threats that “shake the peace and safety of our throne,” he does not deploy the royal we. He touches both his son and himself with a simple gesture, and crystallizes Hal’s reformation while also sharing his own guilt.
If Britton’s Bolingbroke constitutes the fragile contours of the state, Hal’s other father figure, Falstaff, animates England’s distempered arteries. Just like sack, the “two-fold operation” of which produces both wit and “the warming of the blood,” Antony Sher’s Falstaff enlivens every scene. His deliberative movements and gouty stride slow things down such that the audience can perceive the personal sacrifices, improvised alliances, and thwarted loves that attend national turmoil. Whereas Richard could not brook mockery and was ultimately let down by the vacuity of politics, Falstaff thrives on laughter and replaces “trim reckonings” with the plenitude of bodily pleasure. Alex Hassell’s conflicted Prince Hal has to banish him before taking the throne, but he learns at least one thing from his old friend. At the start of Henry V, the foppish French Dauphin tauntingly sends a chest of tennis balls to the English court. Hassell’s young king callously and vengefully replies that “many a thousand widows / Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,” setting the stage for the bloodshed to follow. Yet at the end of the play, the wildly successful warrior king finds himself struggling to cap his victory by wooing the French-speaking Princess Katherine (a charming Jennifer Kirby, also a moving Lady Percy). After making her laugh at his failed attempts at courtship, he realizes this laughter offers an alternative politics than the “aspect of iron” he presents since his father “was thinking of civil wars when he got me.” This king, seeing diplomacy in mirth, concludes, “mock me mercifully… because I love thee cruelly.” A mockery is also an imitation, a reflection—but each king and each actor in this nuanced production shows us that being an image does not mean you do not have dimensions all your own.
The series ends May 1. Full reviews by Adhaar Desai and Laura Kolb (Baruch College) will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of The Shakespeare Newsletter.
King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings
BAM, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Ohio State University present
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran
Set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting design by Tim Mitchell
Music by Paul English
Categories: Theater Reviews