Shakespeare’s ’King and Country’ cycle in Brooklyn

A hollow crown, indeed

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Though that line (uttered by Shakespeare’s Richard II) is tinged with sorrow, there’s nothing sorrowful about experiencing the majestic cycle of history plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Its glorious productions of Shakespeare’s so-called “Henriad”– Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Part II, and Henry V –offer American audiences a unique and thrilling opportunity to see one of the world’s most celebrated theater companies at the top of its game.

Tennant as Richard II: Christlike, albeit with a few flaws. (Photo: Richard Termine.)

This epic tetralogy has circled the world from London to China to Brooklyn, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Under Gregory Doran’s commanding direction, the virtuosic 30-member company performs a sweeping 12-hour saga involving a host of historical and fictional characters in ever-changing alliances. It’s exhilarating theater, not to mention a total immersion in a turbulent chapter in British history (1393-1415) that resonates with lessons for today’s would-be kings. 

Cunning but vulnerable

Richard II charts the fall of one monarch and the rise of another. Like Shakespeare’s greatest works, it’s a study of power and its misuse as well as an examination of character flaws. The impetuous and unpredictable Richard II banishes his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, denies him his inheritance, and reneges on his promise to restore Henry’s lands upon his return. Henry retaliates by leading an uprising against Richard, who – having lost his people’s support – abdicates. 

At the epicenter of this gripping historical drama is a magnetic performance of David Tennant as Richard, the capricious, cunning, and ultimately vulnerable monarch. With his long white robe and shoulder-length tresses, Tennant cuts a Christ-like figure, particularly when he prostrates himself in defeat before his conquering cousin.

Rebellious son

Henry IV Part I features Richard II’s successor, a king who a struggles on many fronts. Henry is wracked with guilt over Richard’s demise. He’s also dealing with a profligate and irresponsible son, Prince Hal, who hangs out in Eastcheap taverns with the renegade Sir John Falstaff and his rowdy crowd. Meanwhile, a growing threat to Henry’s throne emanates from the Percy family, led by the hotheaded Henry Hotspur Percy– erupting into a full-fledged battle in which Hal kills Hotspur in an attempt to gain his father’s approval and prove his adulthood. Henry IV Part II portrays the same king in his declining years and the passing of the throne to a son who may not be ready for it.

Parts I and II shine with stellar performances. Jasper Britton gives a nuanced and deeply moving portrayal of an honorable Henry struggling valiantly to live up to his roles as a noble monarch and responsible father. Matthew Needham cuts an arresting figure as the charismatic Hotspur, while Alex Hassel is an endearing young Hal. Then there’s Antony Sher’s larger-than-life, show-stopping performance as Falstaff, the “fat knight” who steals every scene, whether he’s crawling out from under the bedcovers after a debauched night, or sitting on a tabletop throne in a tavern surrounded by his hangers-on, or wearing a helmet in battle.

Heavy stage traffic

Henry V, eloquently narrated by the actor Oliver Ford Davies, features a valiant young king who’s intent on ruling France as well as England. He mobilizes an army (his “band of brothers”), wins the Battle of Agincourt (“Once more unto the breach!”), and marries Katherine, daughter of the French King.

Under Doran’s expert direction, these huge historical events receive the full Royal Shakespeare treatment – sweeping staging, knights in armor, sword fights, battle scenes, period costumes, and, above all, a brilliant company of skilled Shakespearean actors playing multiple roles. The Brooklyn Academy’s Harvey Theatre stage seems tailor-made for the Royal Shakespeareans, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis wisely keeps it empty, surrounding it with side and upstage balconies, to make full use of the theater’s height and depth.  The Plexiglas stage floor comes alive with Tim Mitchell’s beautiful lighting, illuminating the swift stage traffic created by dozens of shifting scenes. Paul Englishby’s marvelous music underscores the action with period instruments.

Farewell song

All four productions generate magical moments likely to be permanently imprinted on my theatergoing memory – like the darkly lit stage in Richard II, with a shadowy procession filing past a coffin while, high above, three vocalists sing soaring, celestial music. Another is the colorful, crowded tavern scene, like something out of a gorgeous Hogarth painting. There’s a haunting lull in Henry IV, Part I, when a young wife sings a Welsh farewell song to her soldier-husband. The intimate scenes between Henry IV and his wayward son Hal are aching, as the anguished father reaches out to his son. In contrast, there’s the hilarious recruiting scene in Henry IV Part II, featuring Shallow and Silence, two bucolic “justices” played by Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper. And of course there are the many marvelous cameo roles – including Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly, Antony Byrne as Pistol (a wild-haired army recruit), and Simon Yadoo as Jamy, an enthusiastic Scotsman whose speech is utterly indecipherable.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” Henry IV declares in his waning hours. The hollow crown is the leitmotif of this “Henriad” – the symbol that keeps appearing throughout the saga as it passes from hand to hand.  “I know not what name to call myself,” says the devastated Richard II as he hands the crown to Henry IV, and then can’t bear to let go. Later, there’s a stunning moment when Prince Hal, thinking his sleeping father has died, steals the crown off the pillow and places it on his own head. 

The symbol of that hollow crown is one for the ages — most certainly for ours, as we agonize over the transfer of leadership and the awesome responsibilities and perils of power.

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