Shakespearean Kings in Cycle at BAM: Modern themes of leadership & downfall
Actor Alex Hassell Speaks to Eagle About Complexity of the Plays
With an especially raucous presidential campaign season upon us, it’s an interesting time to reflect upon the lives of medieval kings. The Royal Shakespeare Company, in King and Country, a series of performances to be staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Harvey Theater, will be doing just that over the coming month.
A continuation of a tour that has taken the famous Stratford-upon-Avon theater troupe all over the United Kingdom and into China, King and Country trots out Shakespeare’s famous “Henriad,” the four histories dramatizing the lives of Kings Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
So how can modern audiences connect with the struggles of ancient monarchs?
“All four plays are essentially about how someone deals with leadership,” said Alex Hassell, who plays the profligate Prince Hal in the two Henry IV plays, and rounds out his character with performances as the king in Henry V. “I think the relationship of the three kings in this series with their people will be thought-provoking for an American audience, particularly with the political landscape being what it is.”
Hassell argues that Shakespeare’s take on any one topic is typically kaleidoscopic — never settling too solidly into any one perspective.
“They’re very complicated plays,” he said. “There’s xenophobia, and there’s the idea of national pride and patriotism, which in America I think is a great deal more forcefully believed than in the U.K.”
In all, the four plays encompass everything one would expect from a monarchical history by Shakespeare — bad leadership, treachery among friends, drunken carousing, self-doubt, banishment and, of course, ruin and death, though not necessarily in that order. The audience witnesses the demise of the first king, the demise of the next and the rise of the third after he decides to leave his life among the drunken criminals of London’s underworld. The cycle of temporary victory is framed always by a sense that the prevailing mode is a bit gloomy.
“One thing that is fairly unique is the playing of it all in a big cycle,” Hassell said. “If you see all four plays, what you get is a layering of your knowledge of the characters. We as actors can do less and can be seen by the audience’s projection of the story upon the characters.”
Hassell said that as an American audience will process the plays differently than a British one, the audiences that saw the company perform in China had a different take altogether. Part of that was because many of them were reading subtitles rather than reacting directly to the actors’ spoken words.
“At the end of Henry V, there’s a scene that’s known as the wooing scene, and they seemed to respond much more vocally to that, shouting out and clapping unlike any country we’ve ever played before,” he observed. “Because of censorship, one thing they’ve not been allowed is romance.”
But jumping back and forth between different audiences has, he said, made the company more versatile.
“I think that we’ve become more adept at playing to the different audiences we appear before, and hopefully that’ll bear fruit here,” he said, adding that the Harvey Theater is a wonderfully intimate space in which to perform. “You can literally reach out and touch the audience. It’s as though the production has been created for the space rather than being slotted into it.”
Hassell said the relative obscurity in the U.S. of himself and other actors in the troupe would be a boon to the production.
“Sometimes people like to see a famous actor in one of these big roles to see what he can do, but here you’ve got me, who nobody’s heard of, playing these massive parts,” he said. “So you’re getting carried away with your knowledge of the characters and not the fame of the actor.”