The Royal Shakespeare Company’s titanic series “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings” concludes chronologically with Henry V. All four of these great history plays – the others are Richard II, Henry IV Part I, and Henry IV Part II – are in repertory at BAM, presented by BAM, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Ohio State University.
Alex Hassell is stirring at the start, making us feel for his King Henry as the young sovereign transforms haltingly from a dissolute youth into a firm leader of men. Caution yet reigns in the new monarch’s heart as he deliberates painfully about whether he can legitimately claim the French throne, as his advisors are urging him to do. Jim Hooper as the Archbishop of Canterbury, a manipulative political animal, is very fine in the long opening scene, his red robes cloaking an oily hunger for power and a deep capacity to fan the same in the king.
By the time the French ambassador arrives with a mocking gift from the Dauphin – a treasure chest full of tennis balls – Henry’s nervous energy has fueled a new resolve, as defiant and unstoppable as the barrage of wordplay he spits back to the envoy.
We see Henry grow further into his role as head of state – something Richard II could never do, as David Tennant conveyed so well in that title role – as he discovers the strength of character and political understanding to spare the life of an offending commoner, yet sentence three traitors from the nobility to death. Uttering the phrase “to your death” with a hand over his mouth, Henry betrays his shock at what he is doing, while staying outwardly cool.
Centered on a single historical military campaign, which culminated in the storied Battle of Agincourt (storied not least because of this play), Henry V has little plot in the usual dramatic-arc sense. Hassell’s subtle way of showing us Henry’s evolution through the first half of the production goes a good way toward remedying this.
Shakespeare also helps by interspersing parallel scenes of common men (and one memorable woman). Pistol (Antony Byrne) and Mistress Quickly (Sarah Parks), the innkeepers of Henry IV, are still hosting Sir John Falstaff, who is dying offstage, and his Boy, played by Martin Bassindale, as exceptional here as he is as Bushy in Richard II. Pistol and his compatriots go off to war leaving Mistress Quickly alone, a poignant moment well staged. The action follows the men through the campaign as it does the king and nobles.
Pistol and his buddies Nym and Bardolph aren’t the only providers of comedy. There’s blowhard Welsh officer Fluellen. There’s the preposterously vain Dauphin (Robert Gilbert). There’s the offbeat but funny choice to have Scottish officer Jamy (Simon Yadoo) deliver all his lines in an accent so extreme the other officers can’t understand him any better than we can.
There’s the famous scene where Katherine (a drolly charming Jennifer Kirby), the French princess, gets a hilarious, unintentionally lewd lesson in English vocabulary. And there’s the scene at the end when the victorious Henry woos her through a stubborn language barrier.
There and elsewhere, Hassell’s Henry is both funny and sincere. The moment when the soldier Michael Williams (Yadoo again) strikes him in the face is priceless. So is his terrified adolescent reaction during the wooing scene when the King and Queen of France surprise the two young royals kissing.
Many of the play’s well-known scenes and speeches hit home with depth and exactitude under Gregory Doran’s scholarly and wide-angled direction. The opening monologue (“O for a muse of fire”) is delivered beautifully by the Chorus, in the person of the superb Oliver Ford Davies, who is so commanding as York in Richard II. Henry’s “Ceremony” speech begins on a very low simmer and slowly flames up into a roar. Simon Thorp projects the King of France’s angry speech about his nobles with gravitas and soft fire. Similarly powerful is the French Queen’s (Jane Lapotaire) lament for her country.
The RSC’s actors have absorbed Shakespeare’s awe-inspiring but sometimes confounding language as thoroughly as modern-day performers can do. These relatively authentically-staged productions keep Shakespeare’s work fully alive after more than four centuries, with their rich and colorful characterizations, wondrously vivid period costumes, excellent live band and singers performing Paul Englishby’s music, and the BAM Harvey Theater’s usual technical perfection.
However, in this production some scenes don’t have quite the needed flow or punch. Sometimes that’s a result of the choice to have Henry deliver addresses alone on stage, with the audience substituting for his “real-life” listeners – his challenge to the French defenders of Harfleur, for example, or his “Once more unto the breach” call-to-arms, the most famous pep talk in all of English literature.
Also, in parts of the second half, Hassell doesn’t muster the tight intensity of his first-half effort. His sojourn in disguise into the ranks of his soldiers should be profound but comes off rather thin. He tosses off his order to commit a notorious war crime – “every soldier kill his prisoner” – so glibly one could easily miss its import. In a historical drama like this, which tells a (more or less) true story and thus lacks an artistically designed plot, such mood shifts and details are especially important.
All in all, then, I enjoyed Richard II – which, granted, benefits from a spectacularly tragic story – more thoroughly than I did this Henry V, spectacular and praiseworthy though it is. Nonetheless, it’s a great privilege to have any of these tremendous productions on our shores for a short time, much less all of them. The four plays of the RSC’s “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings” continue in repertory at BAM through May 1.