Among the many theatrical ventures commemorating the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is an ambitious, four-part marathon of his history plays. King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings combines Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V into one triumphant narrative, daring in concept and epic in practice. Performed at the Barbican Theatre, the production marks the climax of the RSC’s residency at the London-based venue – but one which illuminates new horizons in the performance of the Bard’s greatest works.
It’s worth noting of this tetralogy that the plays were likely not written to be performed as a unit. They stand up as independent, self-contained works, each of them tonally unique, having been staged individually for centuries: the tragedy of Richard II, a King unable to reconcile his integrally flawed humanity with divine authority; the bawdy comedy of Falstaff in Henry IV Part I, culminating in his poignant rejection by newly-coronated Prince Hal in Part II; and finally the heroic glorification of King Henry V, as he invades and conquers France.
Side by side, however, emerges the sweeping panorama of a richer tale, where each character shines in a more dramatically-revealing context. Most notably, performing the plays in sequence brings to the fore a coming-of-age story about the making of a king, as Prince Hal grows from a rowdy, impish young boy in Richard II to the headstrong, decisive King Henry V, whose marriage concludes the cycle. Alex Hassell succeeds in enacting this transformation, as he slowly gathers the status of protagonist, with the ghosts of previous monarchs behind him.
The personal tragedies of the plays also become engulfed within a wider political drama. For instance, David Tennant’s playful portrayal of Richard II, who wisens up to the magnitude of his position only when he has lost it, becomes a haunting prelude for the plays’ exploration of the identity, power and responsibility of a King. The anguish of Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke, tormented with unease since Richard’s murder, carries these questions further into the narrative.
Similarly, the dark underbelly of comedy becomes more apparent. The stage never fully loses the echo of Antony Sher’s rambunctious Falstaff after he is so harshly dismissed by Prince Hal, his old partner-in-mischief-turned-King. What already serves as a difficult scene for audiences, as all laughter is suddenly stripped from the auditorium, carries lasting ramifications by here casting Henry V’s heroism in the next play in a more ruthless light.
But what makes this theatrical experiment a memorable production in its own right is its starry supporting cast, largely made up of RSC veterans. Julian Glover is a fading yet impassioned John of Gaunt, while Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus commands the stage with the full mastery of Shakespeare’s verse. Jane Lapotaire also returns to the stage for the first time in over a decade, opening the cycle as a vengeful Duchess of Gloucester and closing it as the harmonious Lady Isobel.
To describe sitting through thirteen hours of Shakespeare as ‘hardcore’ would be an understatement, but the quality of this production makes the challenge more than rewarding. Gregory Doran more than reaffirms his innovative talents as the Artistic Director of the RSC and, beyond its 400-year celebration, the cycle reminds us of the exhaustive potential for contemplating Shakespeare’s body of work in new and exciting ways. Bravo.