King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings
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King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings
Theater review by David Cote
“I know you all” declares profligate Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) early in Henry IV Part 1,“and will awhile uphold the unyoked humor of your idleness.” The wastrel son of usurper King Henry IV, Hal addresses an audience that applauds his naughty pranks but worries about the sort of leader he’ll be. Fast-forward to the final scene of Henry IV Part 2: Hal, newly crowned King Henry V, turns to former co-carouser Sir John Falstaff and frostily states, “I know thee not, old man: Fall to thy prayers.” For this monarch, to know a person is ultimately to reject him—or, at best, to exploit him for legitimacy and power. Hal’s youthful time amongst the drunks, thieves and whores of Eastcheap is perfect preparation for kingship. Whether or not it makes him a flawed human is a question that Shakespeare refuses to answer.
English monarchs’ ambivalence to their subjects, families and, ultimately, themselves is the major theme running through the history plays sometimes called the Henriad—Richard II, plus both parts of Henry IV and Henry V. These combined 12 hours of duels, banishment, rebellion, regicide, bawdy satire, coronation and war have been superbly mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the firm, intelligent (and often funny) direction of Gregory Doran. The cycle (running in repertory) represents a considerable investment of time and money for prospective audiences, but the reward is priceless. For the longtime Shakespearean student or lay admirer, here is a glorious feast of comedy, tragedy and adventure.
The staging is solidly designed (sets with scaffolding and Gothic-cathedral projections by Stephen Brimson Lewis, spine-tingling plainsong and instrumental music by Paul Englishby), but the pageantry is anchored by world-class performances. Chief among these is Antony Sher’s magnificent Falstaff. Emphasizing the fat rogue as a seedy, posh-talking parasite, Sher waddles through the comedy and pathos like a woodcut imp, dissecting platitudes about honor and reverent old age. David Tennant is equally thrilling as Richard II, the vain and insecure ruler who acquires depth and dignity on his descent to deposition and death. Audiences used to seeing Tennant reel off Doctor Who banter will be impressed by how musical and crystalline he renders Richard’s exquisitely lyrical, glittering laments. Handsome and slyly charismatic, Hassell crafts the most complex, coherent Prince Hal I’ve ever seen, a privileged bully and sullen subject all at once.
From a purely textual standpoint, the massive undertaking is a unique chance to see these most English of plays done by the English—and almost completely uncut. You will hear several passages trimmed in most productions. In some ways, the unabridged Bard brings him down to earth: These are lengthy, overstuffed machines, almost friendlier in their excess and riot. In short, if you can see all of King and Country (and I hope you can), you will comprehend the Henriad with detailed intimacy—but unlike Prince Hal, that knowledge will inspire love and respect, not pain from a cold, pinching crown.—David Cote
BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Gregory Doran. With David Tennant, Antony Sher, Alex Hassell. Running times: Richard II—3hrs. One intermission; Henry IV Part 1—3hrs 5mins. One intermission; Henry IV Part 2—3hrs 10mins. One intermission; Henry V—3hrs. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote