Long Live The Kings at BAM
It's sheer bliss to binge-watch Shakespeare
Brooklyn’s being washed away in a sea of Shakespeare, nay, a tidal wave.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, based in the Bard’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, has arrived on our shores to offer total us immersion in the Henriad plays.
The famed British theater troupe is performing these four of the 10 History Plays that Shakespeare wrote about medieval English kings — “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part II” and “Henry V” — in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings,” directed by Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, commemorates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The tetralogy was critically acclaimed in its recent run in London.
It’s sheer bliss to see the four plays performed in quick succession, which reviewers had the opportunity to do from Friday, April 1 through Sunday, April 3.
It’s like binge-watching a favorite TV series — with the wow factor exponentially amped up because this is live performance. Nearly 12 hours of live performance.
The cycle starts with a coffin and ends with a kiss. And it’s utterly captivating every step of the way.
It is a joy to share the journey with such an exquisitely skilled ensemble of actors.
This is an epic cultural event — and Brooklyn is privileged to be its only North American venue. It runs through May 1 at BAM Harvey Theater in Fort Greene.
The success of “King and Country” depends on the performances of four lead actors. And they knock it out of the park.
David Tennant stars in the title role in “Richard II” in his American stage debut.
Alex Hassell is bad-boy Prince Hal, who finds his way to redemption and becomes “the mirror of all Christian kings,” Henry V. Hassell stars in three plays.
Jasper Britton plays Bolingbroke, Hal’s father, who becomes King Henry IV by usurping Richard II’s crown and lives thereafter with a tormented conscience. Britton appears in three plays.
Antony Sher is Falstaff, the most beloved rogue in Shakespeare’s canon and Hal’s surrogate father of sorts. Sher’s in two plays, since Falstaff dies — offstage — of a broken heart in “Henry V” after Prince Hal has been crowned king and banished the old man.
‘The lamentable tale of me’
First up in the Henriad saga is “Richard II,” whose title character is played brilliantly and heartbreakingly by Tennant.
The accomplished Shakespearean actor is best known for his role as the Tenth Doctor in the cult-favorite BBC television series “Doctor Who.” He has avid fans who have set up Twitter accounts about him that have hundreds of thousands of followers.
In the recent Netflix series “Jessica Jones,” Tennant is Marvel supervillain Kilgrave, AKA the Purple Man.
Harry Potter fans know him as Barty Crouch Jr. in the film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
The actor begins his portrayal of Richard with an icy and imperious manner. He doesn’t deign to look his noblemen in the eye, preferring to address the air somewhere above their heads — even when he’s meting out a sentence of banishment upon Bolingbroke, his cousin.
Richard’s a cold creature, so pleased when he hears that John of Gaunt, his uncle, is going to die soon.
Crowned at age 10, Richard is a believer, at least at the outset of the play, in the divine right of kings. The narcissistic monarch harms his kinsmen one too many times, and brings his demise upon himself. We fall for him anyway.
Tennant fully and fearlessly inhabits this complex character with incandescent spirit and vulnerability.
A scene when Richard realizes he has no one who will stand with him against Bolingbroke, who has returned to England with an army of thousands, is an emotional tour-de-force.
When Richard delivers his crown to Bolingbroke, it’s electrifying.
“With mine own tears I wash away my balm,” Richard says, taking control of his undoing. “With mine own hands I give away my crown.”
By the time he bids his Queen as they are parted forever, “Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,” we’re so enamored of Richard that it feels like we won’t be able to root for Bolingbroke or his erring heir Hal in the plays that follow.
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’
But fear not.
We are quickly won over by Prince Hal, as played by Hassell, an accomplished Shakespearean actor and co-founding artistic director of a British theater company called The Factory.
Hassell etches a moving portrait of a young man with a heart fine and true that’s barely concealed beneath his bad-boy exterior. He poignantly shows us what it’s like to assume the awesome burdens of being his powerful father’s son — which resonates whether or not one’s Dad is a sovereign ruler.
Scenes with Prince Hal at his father’s deathbed and newly-crowned Henry V as he publicly rejects Falstaff are both heart-breakers.
Of the thousand thoughtful details that go into the making of this play cycle, one that helps cement our allegiance to the prince comes near the beginning of “Henry IV, Part I.”
During his soliloquy about “redeeming time” and confounding people’s low expectations of him, the lights come up in the theater so Hassell can see the audience members’ faces. He delivers his message to us as though we’re the subjects of his realm.
It takes the prince much longer to convince his father of his good intentions, two entire plays, in fact. It’s not enough that Hal saves his father’s life in battle, which he does in “Henry IV, Part I.”
Britton, a veteran Shakespearean, plays to perfection a sad-eyed Henry IV, a pious warrior and man’s man who is wearied to death by terrible guilt and the cares of kingship.
Another of the production’s thousand thoughtful details: “Henry IV, Part I” opens with a cloth-covered corpse on a chapel floor as a presage of things to come. In due time, the corpse stirs — and it’s King Henry IV, alive and prostrate in supplication beneath a crucifix. Richard II’s silent ghost appears up on high, in an archway.
Then Britton delivers the first line of the play: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care.”
‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’
And in the midst of armed rebellion and royal father-and-son conflict, there’s Falstaff, running riot like Bacchus and making us laugh.
Hallelujah for this “stuffed cloakbag of guts,” which is one of Prince Hal’s many epithets for the lying, thieving, booze-guzzling chaos-causer.
Sher, who plays Falstaff, is a national treasure. There’s no hyperbole in this observation. Sher was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for services to acting and writing in 2000.
Falstaff is dead and gone in “Henry V,” but numerous low-life friends live on to provide comic relief.
In this final play of the Henriad, Hal, as a king, grapples with the toll war takes on the great and the humble, on friends and foes, and his responsibilities to them all. He teaches himself scene by scene how to wear the mantle of leadership and let his valor shine forth.
By the time he’s through, he and his “band of brothers” win the Battle of Agincourt — a remarkable victory that’s still commemorated 600 years after it happened. And he wins the hand of the French Princess Katherine (played hilariously by Jennifer Kirby). Bravo to one and all!