Each production in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s series “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings,” now at BAM through May 1, is a remarkable piece of theater, and the whole four-play cycle is a stupendous feat. Watching any or all of them, one might find not to one’s liking some choice or other made by a cast member or by director Gregory Doran. But altogether, it’s an incredible piece of collective work – the essence and the peak of what theater can be.
The cycle begins chronologically with Richard II and proceeds through Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V. All four are playing in repertory at BAM, presented by BAM, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Ohio State University. Seeing them in order would be ideal, but in any sequence, the sweep of the grand story of the Lancastrian kings becomes irresistible. This feels a bit odd to say, but I feel about the series the way people feel about today’s high-end epic television series. (Game of Thrones, for example. Which, not incidentally, owes much to Shakespeare’s dramatizations, especially the Henry VI triptych and Richard III).
To begin with the one trouble I had: In my review of Henry V I opined that Alex Hassell in the title role doesn’t consistently make the character so fully present as to merit the deference and loyalty his court offers him. Now, having seen Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 (I saw the four out of sequence for scheduling reasons), I understand his interpretation better. I appreciate him as Prince Hal, before his accession to the throne near the end of Part 2. Yet my feelings about him as king, there and in Henry V, have solidified further.
One of the greatest of the cycle’s manifold merits is Antony Sher’s deliciously rascally Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV. But this gout-ridden Sir John wouldn’t be so memorable without two things: his moments of vulnerability (“I am old, I am old”); and the finely tuned, richly felt performances around him. Six hours with him have convinced me that he is a Falstaff for the ages (assuming further ages of Shakespeare appreciation are yet to come). And the productions altogether are so outstanding on every level that the joy Sher’s Falstaff brings doesn’t stand in contrast to other aspects; rather it merges with, supports, and lifts the whole.
Delivering Falstaff’s most uproarious and salacious monologue, Sher had so much fun that (at least at the performance I attended) he bubbled over and came darned close to breaking character. The moment felt both modern and ancient – quintessential Falstaff, a character entirely recognizable in any age. Sher adroitly uses exaggeration not to bowl us over but to draw us in, and the pull is irresistible.
What makes these productions so good is their attention to detail, both in the characterizations and in the myriad perfect touches of action and interaction, the humorous as much as the heart-rending. The action of Part 2 opens with the circulation of a mistaken rumor about who has defeated whom in a battle between Henry IV’s army and those of his enemies. Fittingly, Shakespeare has a symbolic character named Rumour introduce the play, instead of a nameless Chorus. In none of the other three productions does the RSC take any blatantly modernistic liberties, but here Rumour’s costume and the staging technologies place us squarely in our own culture. Immediately after the opening monologue, the production’s primary atmosphere smoothly and quickly returns, and we’re again in the early 15th century. It’s done hilariously and with nuance – Rumour, still in his t-shirt, fades into the historical scene without a quiver.
As so often in Shakespeare, father-son relationships loom large. In Part 2, presaging both Henry IV’s death and his successor’s chilling rejection of Falstaff (his father-figure-in-mischief), the Earl of Northumberland (Sean Chapman) mourns the Part 1 death of his son, the petulant if ramrod-straight Hotspur (a fine turn by Matthew Needham). Northumberland nearly breaks down, then hauls himself back to soldierly resolve in an impressive single-scene revelation of complexity of character.
Similarly, early in Part 1 we meet Hotspur in a brilliantly acted scene with his wife, Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby, very strong in one of the cycle’s small but essential female roles). In one compact scene the couple give us a full understanding of the dynamics of their marriage, and thus an essential insight into Hotspur’s battlefield character.
Sarah Parks is a charmingly blowsy, satisfyingly real Mistress Quickly in both parts of Henry IV as well as in Henry V (though her East End accent can be hard for Americans to decipher). Prince John (Martin Bassindale, an actor of uncommon range) is convincingly regal in a way Hal can’t as yet find a way to be, and also a royal pill, in his relatively brief appearances. The eminent Oliver Ford Davies has much fun with the prevaricating Justice Shallow. And Keith Osborn as the Archbishop of York – a primum mobile of the aggrieved alliance against Henry IV – delivers the dense, almost kaleidoscopic recounting of Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne with all due gravitas. It requires a full digestion of Shakespeare’s language to make that kind of scene – rooted as it is in the narrative messenger speeches of ancient Greek drama – compelling. That digestion in turn requires a dedicated lifetime in the theater.
Similarly, Prince Hal comes smashingly to life through Hassell’s performance in Part 1 and much of Part 2, so likable and so real. It happens through small details, again: the way he responds to Falstaff’s question regarding the royal family’s enemies – “art not thou horrible afeard?” – with an anxious, unconvincing “Not a whit.” Or his stunned reaction after he hits the Sheriff, asking himself where his unexpected stroke of petty but real bravery came from.
And it happens through big set-pieces, like the mock court he and Falstaff hold in the Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap. Or, more subtly, in his manly heart-to-heart with his buddy Ned Poins (played impeccably by Sam Marks), which Doran has cleverly set in a locker room after a game of tennis, thus glancing back to the treasure chest of tennis balls mockingly given to King Henry by the French Dauphin at the outset of Henry V.
Jasper Britton’s remarkable Bolingbroke/Henry IV, never able to rid himself of his guilty feelings, resonates in my memory – far less scene-dominating than Sher’s Falstaff, yet as strong in his way. His “sleep” monologue (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”) billows through gradations of angst. (Yet it’s leavened by a snore from Mistress Quickly at the line “and lull’d with sound of sweetest melody.” These are not productions that ever take themselves too seriously). And Henry IV’s deathbed scene with Prince Hal is a multi-faceted wonder, even as Hassell, who seems to lose his way at this point, gives Britton little to work off of.
Shakespeare was brilliant at writing shallower comic characters, too, of course, like the absurdly egotistical Welsh lord Glendower (Joshua Richards), the opportunistic but sentimental prostitute Doll Tearsheet, and the absurd Pistol (Antony Byrne, so over the top I don’t even know what to say).
Heroic, flawed, tragic, comic – the men and women of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, supported by creatively reverent staging, glistening live music, and a sturdy, technically flawless temporary home at BAM, are incredibly conversant with Shakespeare’s brilliant but difficult language, creating a full universe of fictionalized history. It’s been a rare privilege to experience the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Great Cycle of Kings. Royal and political dynasties come and go, but as we mark the 400th anniversary year of William Shakespeare’s death, it’s clear that no one is likely ever to usurp his literary throne.