Stratford Reviews: Take a Deep Breath (of Kings)

Heyo! And welcome to the last of our reviews from Stratford. We’re actually home now and have been since yesterday, but the entire saga of our journey left me too exhausted to actually write. You see… we were SUPPOSED to get home Sunday, but after a huge delay in Toronto involving a woman traveling with four small boys who insisted upon NOT STAYING SEATED DURING TAKE-OFF (which, you know, is against the law) and having to return to the gate to kick her off… we got to spend the night in Newark, NJ. And by night, I mean we got three hours’ sleep in a hotel because we had to be up early to catch the shuttle. Oh, and by the time we got breakfast at 5am, we hadn’t eaten in eighteen hours. So that should explain a lot.

Oh, Newark. If I never see you again, it’ll be too damn soon.

So… that’s why this is coming to you three days after the actual performance. But don’t you worry, I’ve still got everything locked up in this here noggin just ready to pour out. I apologized ahead of time for any length issues, so… here we go.

Breath of Kings took up our entire Saturday. We planned it like that, but it seems a lot of people thought we were insane for doing the histories back-to-back. I guess people don’t find the Henriad as interesting as I do. Well, I should have known that; the glazed looks I get when I start talking about history should’ve been a lifelong clue. I admit, I will never understand people who think history is boring. You know what’s boring? Golf. History is exciting. But, in any case, we had six hours of history plays on Saturday (though divided by three hours to go get dinner and whatnot), which closed out our time in Stratford this year.

The plays were staged in the Tom Patterson theater, which is the first time we’ve gotten to see a show there, and were thus performed in the round. Yes… surround sound history. When we went in for part one, Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV pt 1), the stage looked like it had purple carpet on it, but it actually turned out to be mulch standing in for the earth of England. Since the earth/soil is important to Richard II in particular (lots of exile and returning home, etc), we both thought it was a good, if minimal, approach to the whole endeavor. In fact, here’s a picture:


See? Doesn’t it kinda look like purple carpet? A and I thought, just like everything else, that it was a brilliant use of the space. And it totally worked with the production, which was relatively minimal and somewhat modern. Given that it was an adaptation by a Stratford actor, A and I thought they probably didn’t receive a huge budget, and so what they did with it was really creative. There was a mix of modern and period in the costuming, with button downs and black jeans pairing with houppelands and robes. In fact, the division between “main” characters and supporting, and especially between Kings and nobles/commoners, was really easily discerned because the grander costumes were reserved for the royals/main characters. Richard II was in gold robes when he was king and plain cloth when he was deposed. In Henry V, the French wore beautiful blue, gold, and white that contrasted beautifully with the plainly-dressed English. It was a great use of costume-as-storytelling that I appreciated (and I know A did, too).

This was also another great use of lighting and sound here from Stratford. Because of such a minimal set (especially in Redemption, where pieces of the stage were removed during Agincourt to “destroy” the field), the lighting and sound really had to carry the atmosphere. Flashing lights and somewhat modern sounds gave, in my opinion, the audience something to ground them; they could understand what the lights and the noises meant because it was something they could connect to, and from there, they could connect to the action on stage. Any time there’s battle on stage, it’s going to be abstract, so giving the audience something concrete to hold on to was a great decision, in my opinion.

One of the other boarders at Laura’s described Breath of Kings as “Reader’s Digest Shakespeare”, saying it was for people who didn’t truly appreciate the Bard. I disagree. I think that, yes, some of the depth of character was lost in combining four plays into two, but what it gained was a clear line, a discernible thread of how the events of the Henriad played into one another. Richard is deposed, Henry IV — as his deposer — is thus never settled on the throne and always plagued by rebellion, and Henry V represents a redemption (haHA) for the throne and for England, uniting the people and bringing glory to John of Gaunt’s “scepter’d isle”, which had become rotten. And, too, it reflects the nature of the hollow crown to destroy the men who bear it, which Richard II so beautifully (and in this case, exceptionally, but I’ll get there in a second) describes upon finding out everyone has defected to Bolingbroke. There are a lot of themes at work here, a lot of patterns, and I believe the combining of the plays succeeded in highlighting them rather than simply expediting the process. (Though, to be fair, the expedition of both Henry IVs was appreciated. While I like them in that they show the development and rise of Henry V, they lack the linguistic beauty of Richard II and the powerful glory of Henry V. They’re quieter, for the most part, with the exception of Shrewsbury, but the battle was quickly done and obviously not the focus.) So, basically, to the lady who basically accused A and I of not being serious about Shakespeare (because we enjoyed these plays): shove it.

Another thing A and I liked that some of our fellow boarders didn’t was the use of women in men’s roles. Now, to be clear, it wasn’t the presence of women that bothered our fellows, but rather that they were not, in their mind, convincing as men. Their physicality, their voices, were not shaped to make the audience believe that the characters they played were male. But A and I didn’t think it mattered. They simply were not ATTEMPTING to portray these characters as men; the maleness or femaleness of these characters and their performers simply didn’t matter. Do y’all remember a while back, I did a post on gender in Shakespeare? This is a perfect case of that concept. Yes, it’s history. Yes, these were men. But it really didn’t matter because the characters were, first and foremost, important (or secondary) players in the rise and fall of Kings. Their gender and the gender of the people playing them were entirely secondary to what the character needed to accomplish. So, again, A and I disagree with some of our fellows. While neither of us would say this was our favorite production (Gasp! I know! Me? Really?! But, alas, yes… The Hypochondriac ruled all.), neither of us would say it was poorly done or poorly acted.

Speaking of acting. Let’s get into that for a moment before I sign this thing off (as I see it’s turning into something of an essay). My favorite actor from Stratford (and possibly A’s, too, though maybe not as much as me) played Richard II, Shallow in Henry IV pt 2, and the Chorus in Henry V. Tom Rooney is nothing short of spectacular. If you were with us last year, you’ll recall our gushing reviews of his Polonius, who actually succeeded in making us miss him when he died. For historical reasons, I have never been fond of Richard II, and he made me rethink my opinion, at least of whether or not to feel sorry for him. At turns humorous, capricious, and pitiful, his Richard set such a high mark for the rest of the play that I’m convinced it’s the reason Breath of Kings isn’t my favorite. His return in Henry IV pt 2 was described by a fellow audience member as “the best performance of Shallow I have ever scene”, and I am inclined to agree. It’s not a deep part (obviously), but it was so comedic and well-performed, it helped me get through my least favorite portion of the Henriad. And, by virtue of his being the Chorus, he got to speak the last words of Stratford ’16, which felt entirely appropriate to me. There’s a reason he’s my favorite, and, after this year, he retains that spot. In fact, his was my favorite individual performance of the entire trip. I’ll ask A hers the next time we speak.

I have also got to give it up for Graham Abbey, who not only adapted and co-directed this production, but also starred in it as Bolingbroke/Henry IV (same character, different titles). His character’s… descent, for lack of a better word, from strong and mighty to sickly and wounded was spectacular, and he has a damn fine voice for Shakespeare. The clear weight of the crown upon his head and the way it seemed to steal his mind, his body, his spirit from him was nothing short of brilliant. And his “son”, Hal/Henry V, played by Araya Mengesha (a brilliant piece of colorblind casting that), was equally amazing, taking his character from wayward youth to warrior king in a brilliant evolution. I liked his decision to take the more… cynical approach to Hal’s character, in which he played up his behavior with the Eastcheap characters as a kind of ruse to make everyone underestimate him. The language is there in Shakespeare, but he chose to play it up, and that is something I enjoyed. Seeing it in that light, it’s easier to understand why he is remembered so brilliantly; he understood the crown and used it to shape himself and his story. My only criticism of his performance was the decision, whomever’s it was, to have him yell the “once more unto the breach” speech. Just a personal opinion (shared by A), but, though it makes sense to shout it over the din of battle, I prefer it as a quietly rousing speech for an exhausted and spiritually downcast group. Something that builds. But it is a small quibble because the St. Crispin’s Speech before Agincourt was nothing short of spectacular. I’ll admit, there were tears in my eyes. It’s a truly remarkable speech, and one of my favorites.

Last and certainly not least, Falstaff. Geraint Wyn Davies’ performance was… amazing. Falstaff is the heart of Henry IV (both parts), but is especially important to part two. In fact, part two is almost more his and Hal’s story than Henry IV (well, not almost… definitely), and the performance was hilarious. He found every comedic moment and used it well. When Henry V repudiates him at the end of Henry IV pt 2, I was genuinely brokenhearted despite knowing Falstaff fully intended to use Henry for his own devices. It was a damn fine piece of work. Shout out to Mikaela Davies for being both the Dauphin and his sister, Katherine, in a brilliant piece of acting, and Johnathan Sousa, for a great Hotspur. I confess, I’ve a fondness for that character, and he did it brilliantly.

OK. I’m done. I swear. I swear I am done. I promise. That’s the end of Stratford 2016’s reviews. Come Friday (trying to get us back on a regular schedule), either I or A will talk about our overall opinion and impression of Stratford (the other will follow the next day). We should be back to normal starting Monday. Love from back in Florida!



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