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A CurtainUp Review
King and Country

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,/ This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,/ This other Eden, demi-paradise,/ This fortress built by Nature for herself/ Against infection and the hand of war,/ This happy breed of men, this little world,/ This precious stone set in the silver sea. . . . — John of Gaunt, from Richard II


Richard II
David Tennant as Richard II (London production photo byKwame Lestrade)
King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings is the robust answer to the timely question, "How do we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death?" Now in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, It brings to vivid life the Bard's second tetralogy — Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V — with a first-rate British cast.

This Royal Shakespeare Company production, boldly directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Artistic Director Gregory Doran, comes to BAM following its performances at the Barbican and its tour through China. Happily, this Henriad remains fresh and doesn't smack of the tetralogy mentality. Doran cuts no theatrical corners here.

Each play stands alone. However, if you decide, as I did, to go to the entire panorama of plays, you will experience their collective power, and discover how each bleeds into the next chronicle, and echoes the former play's dominant themes and interests. True, seeing the whole cycle is quite a work-out. I saw the entire marathon within a week and, yes, it felt at times like I was climbing Mt. Everest. So a word to the marathoners: Tuck some "Powerbars" into your pocket or purse to sustain you through the four-part event.

Richard II

Richard II is the opening salvo to the four-play production. It's the Bard's most lyrical play (written completely in verse). With the Scottish actor David Tennant in the titular role it gains a whiff of celebrity. Tennant, who is best-known for his performances on the small screen, most notably as the Tenth Doctor in the popular TV show Dr. Who, proves here that he can tread the boards with panache. Not only does Tennant have stage presence and the Shakespearean chops to deliver the verbal brilliance of King Richard, but he fully realizes the royal who devolves from a pompous ruler to a deposed king. Tennant cuts quite a memorable figure here. Whether he's outfitted in richly-textured robes, or dressed like a monk in the later scenes, his Richard, wearing a wavy long-haired wig, is the center of focus at all times. Indeed, Tennant has the range to convey both Richard's original narcissism and entitlement (the historical King Richard was crowned at the tender age of 10) and his later desolation.

As Tennant salts the stage with his teary speeches, he portrays a human being who learns too late that he isn't impervious to fickle fortune (or fickle friends) and is made of flesh-and-blood. Yes, this is the tale of doers and dreamers, of Richard's political fall, and Bolingbroke's rise to power. You watch a rigorous tug-of-war for the crown between these two polar-opposite cousins, and witness how realpolitiks here trumps the notion of being "God's anointed." If you're going to only one play, make it this one.

Henry IV, Part 1

Anthony Sher as Fastaff
Henry IV, Part 1 dramatically shifts the tone of the tetralogy. Instead of the formal cadences of Richard II striking our ear, we get a mélange of poetry and prose of all shades. At first blush, this seems to center on the care-worn and guilt-ridden reign of its nominal character. Doran, however, smartly stages this history play with Prince Hal and Falstaff strongly in the fore. Falstaff is Hal's surrogate father in this play, and the Act 2 tavern scene (over 500 lines long) wonderfully illustrates how each brings out the other's wit. Expect plenty of bawdiness, carousing, highway robbery, and tomfoolery when Falstaff and his minions are on stage too.

Doran's blocking is superb. And, oh yes. We will watch the amazing metamorphosis of the prodigal son Hal to the hero-soldier at Shrewsbury when he kills his nemesis Henry Percy (aptly dubbed "Hotspur") in the play's final moments.

The acting ensemble is faultless. Jasper Britton inhabits Henry IV with all the angst of a ruler who has become king by coldly un-kinging his cousin Richard. Alex Hassell buoyantly straddles his complex character Hal, first embodying the Prince's recklessness in the tavern world and his later transformation to the chivalrous soldier at Shrewsbury. Anthony Sher seems born to play the witty Falstaff, who can spew forth saws and Biblical wisdom, bending each to his own purposes. No weak links in this cast--and no dull spots in this political drama.

Henry IV Part 2

Although Henry IV Part 1 typically gets more ballyhoo, Henry IV Part 2 plays no second fiddle here. Okay, it has less dynamic events to latch on to, as it focuses more on the grooming of Prince Hal for his impending kingship. But who can resist Antony Byrne as the presenter Rumour in the Induction? Performing the part in mufti, Byrne uses his own acting virtuosity plus some technological wizardry. When Byrne enters the performing space, in fact, it's easy to mistake him for the stage manager, alerting the audience to turn off their cell phones. The fourth wall quickly returns with the next click of his own cell phone, however, which lights up the back wall of the stage with a scrambled version of the Rumour speech text. Byrne crisply delivers the famous monologue, which gradually blurs into a cacophony of foreign-tongued voice overs. Yes, Rumour is globally contagious here, an international virus that spreads throughout the world in a nanosecond.

There are other brilliant touches in this play too. We watch Falstaff, though no longer in the constant company of Hal, comically gathering a motley band of recruits to battle. This play also chronicles Henry IV's death, Prince Hal's coronation, with his stinging pubic rejection of Falstaff. So don't shrug off this piece as the step-child to Henry IV Part 1. This play's magnetism, in fact, is that it becomes an intriguing study of how Prince Hal undertakes the final leg of his political journey to kingship, adopting a new surrogate father in Lord Chief Justice. As in Part 1, the ensemble acting is impressive, with Sarah Park and Emma King adding some gritty levity with their portrayals of Mistress Quickley and Doll Tearsheet, respectively.

Henry V

Last, but not least in this marathon, is Henry V, where the new-crowned Henry V matures and becomes the model King. Hassell tackles the role with a blending of gravity, zest, and humor. There's a wonderful piece of stage business at the opening when the Chorus figure (Oliver Ford Davies) picks up Henry V's crown from the empty throne at center stage, no doubt reflecting on the dramatic import of the famous Prologue. In a wink, we see Alex Hassell sprint from the wings, firmly grab his character's crown, and exit in a flash. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But it surely gets the message across that this new-minted king will be no push-over—and will tenaciously guard his crown.

Hassell will carve this same message, time and again, during his performance. And, by the bye, if you typically don't count Henry V as one of your favorite Shakespeare plays, this production might change your perspective. True, Ralph Richardson famously tweaked the protagonist as the "cold-bath king" and the "exaltation of a scout master." But Hassell manages to scratch beneath his character's surface here and reveal the humanity within the ruler. And even if you have heard the famous Crispian speech a thousand times before, Hassell gives it a fresh spin here, and only a stone would turn a deaf ear to its stirring poetry.

The final scene with Henry V wooing Kathryn is deliciously awkward too. Henry's paucity of French makes his proposal come off more comic than stately—but ultimately winning. Hassell's acting is flawless in this play. And when it comes to pure acting stamina, nobody is his match in this Henriad.

Production Values

The production values are excellent. Stephen Brimson Lewis' masculine-looking set design, abetted by Tim Mitchell's somber lighting, is suitable for this history play cycle. Lewis conjures up all the essential royal accoutrements with authentic details. One of the more striking props is an elegant mural of a white hart draped over the back wall of the stage in Richard II. The white hart was the traditional emblem used by Richard II's private army, and it brings historical depth to this production. Lewis also strategically uses Christian imagery throughout the cycle to underscore each king's religious faith and ethical concerns, injecting a spiritual content into these political plays. Terry King's fight design gives the onstage battle scenes their necessary edge. And Paul Englishby's music is divine, an aural feast of Medieval hymns and chants.

Conclusion: Shakespeare would be pleased

Although we follow 4 kings' individual journeys in this Henriad, the real protagonist here is the nation, and how it gains its identity. Doran deserves nothing but kudos for bringing this epic theatrical event to New York. Shakespeare, if he were still alive, would likely give it a thumbs-up.

King and Country: Shakespeares Great Cycle of Kings
Four plays by William Shakespeare in repertory: Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II;Henry V
Directed by Gregory Doran
Cast: Daniel Abbott, Martin Bassindale, Jasper Britton, Antony Byrne, Sean Chapman, Fisher Costello-Rose, Oliver Ford Davies, Nicholas Gerard-Martin, Robert Gilbert, Julian Glover, Alex Hassell, Jim Hooper, Emma King, Jennifer Kirby, Jane Lapotaire, Sam Marks, Dale Mathurin, Jake Meads, Christopher Middleton, Evelyn Miller, Matthew Needham, Keith Osborn, Sarah Parks, Leigh Quinn, Joshua Richards, Antony Sher, David Tennant, Simon Thorp, Obioma Ugoala, Andrew Westfield and Simon Yadoo.
Sets by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting by Tim Mitchell
Music by Paul Englishby
Sound by Martin Slavin
Movement by Michael Ashcroft
Fights by Terry King
Voice coaches: Kate Godfrey and Alison Bomber Stage managers: Patricia Davenport and John C. McNamara
Running times: Richard II, 2 hours 55 minutes; Henry IV, Part I, 3 hours 5 minutes; Henry IV, Part II, 3 hours 10 minutes; Henry V, 2 hours 55 minutes.
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; 718-636-4100,
From 3/24/16— Richard II, closing 4/29/16/ Henry IV Part I and II closing 4/30; Henry V closing 5/01/16
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan (Richard II - April 5th, Henry IV Part 1 - April 6, Henry IV Part 2 - April 7, Henry V - April 10 matinee) --
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