Adapter-actor Graham Abbey’s first helping of Breath of Kings: (Rebellion), proved to be a marvel of language, casting and staging. Putting the first two of the so-called Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1) back to back, made for three hours of non-stop historical drama, binding the narratives together in a manner that stand-alone, separate productions never could.
Wisely, two directors (Weyni Mengesha, Mitchell Cushman) were employed, ensuring that the results would be as different as Shakespeare’s texts—especially the use of humour: Richard II being much more wry and understated than the full-blown buffoonery of Henry IV, Part 1.
Nonetheless, unity of the visual aspects was ideally served on many fronts. Anahita Dehbonehie designed both sets with savvy minimalism (the rectangular Tom Patterson stage was truly brought to ground, covering it with moveable earth; placing some of the actors in the realm of the audience added welcome variety, a we-are-there feel and a marvellous “look down on you” from King Richard). Yannik Larivée’s costumes for both plays were the perfect match for gender-blind casting, readily spanning the gamut of royalty, purse snatchers (real or imagined) and a corpulent Sir John Falstaff whose outfits frequently threatened to burst the seams. The lighting (Kimberly Purtell plotting both productions) was at one with the various moods and tones, notably opening with a solitary spot on the cause of so much grief, ambition and treachery to come: the crown; absolutely spectacular were the Henry IV battle scenes where the gleaming weaponry (at bloody work or in tableau), magnificently complemented John Stead’s riveting fight designs.
One important area where the directors displayed combined vision (no doubt encouraged by Abbey in his capacity of associate director) revolved around iconic symbolism. Both plays opened with their respective sovereigns either being bathed in a holy manner (Richard II) or having His royal skin tattooed with the cross (Henry IV). Dead Richard’s final appearance was purposely arranged in Christ-on-the-cross fashion (a deep gash to the abdomen, previously inflicted by an English Judas completed the effect/echo), only to have the first view of King Henry IV similarly posed (yet face down) to begin the second half. A remarkable bit of stagecraft added a further religious reference as Mother earth morphed into still another cross.
The acting was uniformly excellent; highlights abounded.
Tom Rooney (aided and abetted by the playwright’s choice of which atrocities-past to mention) gave an unforgettable performance as King Richard II, conjuring up an incredible range of emotion that made the audience laugh, shudder, weep or empathize. Michelle Giroux was the stoic foil as his queen.
Randy Hughson fired on all cylinders in the part of the Duke of York as did Irene Poole with a sturdy take on Sir Stephen Scroop.
Abbey made an entirely convincing transition from the hot-headed Duke of Hereford in the opener to a deeply troubled king after the break. His cry of “And God befriend us, as our cause is just” was a chilling reminder as to the ability of so many despots past, present and future to rationalize wanton death, injury and destruction.
A very nearly line-perfect performance from Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal kept much of the comedy in Henry IV moving steadily forward—his next incarnation as King Henry V is eagerly anticipated.
The third “Harry” (there being no shortage of that name on both sides of the conflicts; one can only wonder what further mischief present-day Prince Harry might get into!) was another study in metamorphosis from loyal subject to revengeful warrior. Jonathan Sousa made the transition from early devotion to unbridled grittiness with aplomb.
Pulling out all of his considerable acting stops (whether breaking wind or not!) Geraint Wyn Davies crafted a Sir John Falstaff for the ages; his “honour” speech (and subsequent references) was a veritable tour de force.
Most certainly, Shakespeare went out of his way to temper the gruesome carnage spurred by imagined-divine-right-to-govern with broad slapstick and tall tales that tickled the funny bone even as the body count mounted. Still—as witness killing fields then and now—war continues to be no laughing matter—especially for those unfortunates caught in the crosshairs of their “betters.” JWR