|THE BARD'S KINGS
|By BERNARD CARRAGHER
The Royal Shakespeare Company recently performed King and Country, the Bard's cycle of King plays – Richard II, Henry IV, Part I & II, and Henry V – in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. Each of the four was staged by the RSC's artistic director Gregory Doran, and all the productions are profoundly true to the text and spirit of the plays and are entertaining in the broadest popular sense. They are ingeniously staged and commendable in concept. They have great acting and are brilliantly played with high rousing theatricality, which Shakespeare's historical dramas always demand.
In Brooklyn there were 31 actors in the company, most of whom play multiple roles in these chronicles of war and politics, tavern roguery, and battle scenes that fill the stage with gutsy brawling. There are star turns by David Tennant as Richard II, Antony Sher's Falstaff in Henry IV, and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal and later as King Henry V. All RSC players have been taught how to use their voices. They speak every line with full clarity and an absolute sense of meaning. They are able to project every speech to the far reaches of the Harvey auditorium.
Under Doran's direction they make Shakespeare's meaning clear – something you can't always experience when you are reading the plays on your own. When Richard II begins by speaking his lamentation about hollowness of any king's crown, the speech begins, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.” Tennant invokes the bittersweet sadness and drama that reverberate in Shakespeare's words.
Tennant, who has a classical acting background but is probably best know, to the world as Doctor Who or for ITV's Broadchurch, plays the cruel, foppish Richard. His Richard is tall, thin, with longish curly hair. He cuts an elegant figure in royal robes and plays the title part with subtle understanding. When he falls from grace and is deposed, he acquires some dignity and even a measure of grandeur. But before that he is a smiling villain as he betrays his former conspirator, the unlucky Duke of Norfolk, sends his dangerous rival Bolingbroke (Jasper Britton) into exile, and then coldly plunders his uncle's estate, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and sets off to conquer Ireland.
When Richard falls, turning from tyrant to victim, the actor retains the fallen King's biting irony, which makes his remorse moving. Towards the end, Richard gets to enjoy the sound of his own sorrow, but Shakespeare does not allow the words yo carry him, or Richard, away.
The most spectacular character in Henry IV, Parts I & II is Falstaff, as Sher does a dazzling job in the part. He makes the hotheaded and choleric rogue into a comical character, a wonder for all seasons. You would not believe that Sher – who has conquered Macbeth and is set to do King Lear this summer at RSC's British home in Stratford – had a flair for a comic reprobate like Falstaff. With a flushed red face with gray whiskers and a paunch, he looks more jocular than the villain Sir John actually is. Sher sometimes goes a bit too far in making the Falstaff sympathetic, but it works later in the play because when Hal has become king and he renounces Falstaff, we are shocked. Whatever you feel for Falstaff, he is one of Prince Hal's most wicked pals and ultimately must be punished by the new king. Yet it seems a pity since in this instance we have grown too fond of this wily character. In both plays he is assisted by a group of rowdy Eastcheap and Gloucestershire characters like Mistress Quickley (Sarah Parks), Doll Tearsheet (Emma King), Justice Shallow (Oliver Ford Davies), and Justice Silence (Jim Hooper).
Alex Hassell, as the young King Henry V, is more than a competent actor. He plays Prince Hal's comedic role elan and assumes the crown with earnest composure. He shows some bravura style for Henry's heroic scenes and his voice rises well in the more glorious speeches. He is best when the troubled king, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, dismisses himself of his royalty to mingle incognito with his common soldiers and gets into a row with one of the more bellicose ones, Michael Williams (Simon Yadoo). Here Hassell shows what it takes to be a king.
In these moments, Hassell does not strain for effect. He acts with simplicity and with strong feelings and makes the king persuasive and engaging. He also achieves a kingly level in the scenes with the Ambassador of the French, Dauphin (Robert Gilbert), who sends the king tennis balls as a jeering joke signifying Prince Hal's playboy days.
Doran stages the English siege of the French at Harfleur with great skill, with the stage roaring with the noises of battle. As the soldiers fight, the king urges his men to a final thrust of virtuosity with the speech that begins, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
All four productions were handsomely designed by Stephen Brirmson Lewis and enriched by live musicians and singers. Doran's direction has each play move briskly. At all times he is aware that although they are classics of world literature they were meant first for the theater. Presenting these admirable productions of four great Shakespearean plays, the RSC has given New Yorkers a dazzling theatrical spring treat.