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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
KING AND COUNTRY: SHAKESPEARE'S GREAT CYCLE OF KINGS
at BAM's Harvey Theatre

KING FOR A DAY
By DAVID COTE

  Antony Sher, Sam Marks and Alex Hassell in Henry IV/ Ph: Richard Termine

“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, 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 HenriadRichard 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 long-time Shakespearean student or lay admirer, here is a glorious feast of comedy, tragedy and adventure.
 
Although solidly designed (sets with scaffolding and Gothic-cathedral projections by Stephen Brimson Lewis, spine-tingling plainsong and instrumental music by Paul Englishby), the epic presentation 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.
 
Luckily, there’s fine acting to be savored not only in the leading roles, but also throughout the 31-member ensemble. (This is in marked contrast to the RSC’s five-play residency at Park Avenue Armory in 2011, which was largely disappointing and stale.) As Richard II’s fair-weather friend (and fleeting love interest) the Duke of Aumerle, Sam Marks combines earnestness and guilty self-interest. In Henry IV Part 1, Matthew Needham’s Hotspur is surprisingly comical amid his testosterone-fuelled bluster. Oliver Ford Davies’ Justice Shallow makes comic hay with forgetful pauses between lascivious reminiscences. And as Henry V’s doughty if boorish Welsh officer Fluellen, Joshua Richards rises above the regional caricature the figure sometimes falls into. Throughout the ensemble, the verse is spoken with the muscularity and delicacy of world-class trained thespians.
 
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, knowing it will inspire love and respect, not pain from a cold, pinching crown.

 


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