Three Kings


Stratford, Ontario, is a small, Midwestern town, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a flat terrain of cornfields and square brick farmhouses with railed porches.  Since 1953, it has improbably hosted a distinguished summer Shakespeare festival, which now runs from May to October in four theaters, presenting not only Shakespeare but plays like A Chorus Line, Le Malade Imaginaire, and John Gabriel Borkman.  My wife, Lisa, and I are here to see this summer’s Shakespeare offerings—four performances in three days.

Yesterday we saw the four plays of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy condensed into two remarkable performances—Breath of Kings: Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV, Part I) in the afternoon, followed by Breath of Kings: Redemption (Henry IV, Part II and Henry V) in the evening.  The Stratford title comes from Bullingbrook’s bitter comment to Richard II after the latter has reduced his banishment from ten years to six:

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.

The phrase suggests both the strength and the fragility of the king’s power: the breath of a king can wipe out four years in a moment, but it is still human breath, tied to a mortal human body.  Two plays later, as Bullingbrook (now Henry IV) lies dying, his son Hal looks to see if he is still breathing:

By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move.

The king’s breath can fail, because he is merely human—a point which Breath of Kings: Rebellion makes in its opening scene, by stripping Richard to the waist and then representing his anointing, enrobing, and coronation while a murder he has ordered takes place at the other end of the stage.   How can the king be both human and “God’s substitute”?  What does it mean, in human terms, to assume the awful weight of kingship?  These are the central questions posed by this extraordinary sequence of plays—not just in Richard’s complex amalgamation of self-indulgent narcissism and regal posturing but in Henry IV’s agonized brooding (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”) and Hal’s conflicted movement between tavern and court.

Seeing all four plays in six hours in a single day brought into relief not only these recurring thematic concerns but broad story arcs extending over several plays—in particular, the momentous deposition of Richard and its afterlives; the development of Bullingbrook’s character as he deposes Richard and becomes a powerful and then sick and tormented King; and Hal’s emergence from the “foul and ugly mists/Of vapors that did seem to strangle him” at Eastcheap to become the hero of Agincourt.   There was an overriding sense of unity not just in each of the two Breath of Kings performances but in the day as a whole.  As Henry IV has trouble sleeping, for example, images from the early plays haunt his dreams: hooded figures chant Carlisle’s prophecy that “the blood of English shall manure the ground” if Richard is deposed, and soldiers wear masks of Richard’s face.  Northumberland’s character spans three plays, appearing first as a bold supporter of Bullingbrook, then as a conspirator against him, shying uneasily away from battle.  The moving scene in which Hal publicly rejects Falstaff—“I know thee not, old man”—has more pathos when the earliest scenes of them carousing and drinking together are still fresh in our minds.

The plays were performed here by twenty energetic and talented actors, all of whom played multiple roles, representing nearly fifty separate characters.  Their performances were casually and un-self-consciously color- and gender-blind, with women frequently playing men, moving easily back and forth across gender lines, and color and ethnicity having no apparent significance in the action.  There were one or two instances of self-conscious play—for example, when the actress playing the Dauphin deftly removed a doublet, unfurled a white skirt, and became the Princess Kate in a matter of seconds, or when the actor who had previously played Falstaff spoke about him, as Fluellen, with a knowing and playful expression—but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.  The costumes were spare and eclectic: Lisa said that it seemed as if the actors had been turned loose in the wardrobe room and invited to take whatever seemed appropriate for their characters: skullcaps, jerseys, doublets, animal skins, gunbelts, eye patches, robes.  The lozenge-shaped stage was relatively bare, covered by bark mulch and surrounded on all sides by steeply-tiered seats.  (The mulch was often manipulated for dramatic affect: a body dragged through it left a gash; cross-shaped lines were raked through it; it  became the earth when Richard returned from Ireland and knelt to touch it.)   The actors played skillfully to the entire house, turning gently and naturally during long speeches.  They also used the periphery of the stage and even the audience’s space: Richard stood high up in an aisle, with scepter and orb, to address Northumberland from the walls of Flint Castle, before descending “like glittering Phaeton”; as they entered Hal’s coronation scene, Falstaff and his cronies moved through the audience and said, “Excuse me, I think these are our seats,” sitting on the stunned patrons’ laps.

The effect of all these production choices was to place the emphasis on the language, which the actors handled with great skill and feeling, driving the story forward and articulating its themes.  Astonishingly, through the two long performances, we never felt that the production dragged: we were pulled along by the lucidity and energy of the speeches.  It was all one story.  The pace was often rapid, with entrances and exits coming from all sides of the stage, but there were quiet, introspective moments, too—for example, Richard’s melancholy speech about the death of kings, or Henry IV’s dying speech to his son.   As the evening performance moved into its triumphant phase—the celebration of Henry V’s victories in France—the Elizabethan equivalent of Boston fans talking over the 2004 ALCS–the production reached its own triumph, in Henry’s ringing speech at Agincourt (“We few, we happy few”) and the multilingual courtship scenes between him and Kate.   After spending the better part of the day in this world, we were genuinely sorry to have to leave.

The actors in the principal roles were all impressive:  Tom Rooney’s Richard was tense, unpredictable, witty, poetic, fascinating; his presence (alive and dead) dominated the production.  Graham Abbey showed an astonishing range as Bullingbrook and Henry IV. At first, he was like an English football fan on his best behavior: there was a suppressed, mulish force just below the surface even of his most gracious speeches, and he outfaced Richard even in the deposition scene.  But he evolved into a complex, vulnerable, guilt-ridden old man, lying on his deathbed with the crown next to him on a pillow.  Although he was slight of stature and seemingly lacking in presence at first, Areya Mengesha grew into his performance as Hal and Henry V.  His forceful reply to the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls was one of the highlights of the evening performance.   But Geraint Wyn Davies’s Falstaff deserves special notice.  Wyn Davies, who played the ham actor Henry Breedlove in season 2 of Slings and Arrows, commanded the stage during the tavern scenes and (especially) Falstaff’s soliloquies.  He was buoyant, shrewd, unsinkable—and his corrosive deconstruction of court virtue served as a counterpoint to the play’s main themes. “There’s honor for you!” Falstaff says, looking down on the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt.  Indeed. The strength of Wyn Davies’ performance raised real questions about the value and trajectory of Hal’s heroic evolution.  Can it be right for Hal to turn aside from Falstaff’s ironic knowledge to become a hero and a king?

–Dan Gunn



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