NEW YORK – The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing “King and Country,” the Bard's cycle of King plays – “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Parts I and 2” and “Henry V,” in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater through May 1.
Recently I saw “Henry IV Parts I & II.” Like all of the plays, it was staged by the RSC's artistic director, Gregory Doran. The productions are all profoundly true to the text and spirit of the plays. They are entertaining in the broadest popular sense. They are ingeniously staged and commendable in concept. The “Henry” plays have the great performances and rousing theatricality that Shakespeare's historical plays always demand.
In Brooklyn there are 31 actors, most of whom play multiple roles in these chronicles of war and politics, tavern roguery and battle scenes that fill the stage with gutsy brawling. All RSC players have been taught how to use their voices. They speak every line with full clarity and an absolute sense of meaning. They are able to project every speech to the far reaches of the Harvey auditorium.
Under Mr. Doran's direction, they make Shakespeare's meaning clear, which is something you can't always experience when you read the plays on your own. At the same time, when the passages are poetic, as for instance when Henry IV (Jasper Britton) laments the elusiveness of sleep, he, as king, invokes all the music in the lines. Mr. Britton is an actor who knows how to make Henry IV royal yet never overly dramatic. He plays the troubled monarch with strength that mounts into passion as the king confronts wayward son Prince Hal (Alex Hassell), preparing his son to succeed him to the throne.
There is a host of good performances like that of Mr. Hassell, as the inglorious playboy prince who ultimately assumes the crown as the earnest composed King Henry V. As Hotspur, the Earl of Northumberland's son, Matthew Needham gives a striking portrayal of a man hoping to be king. He has a wonderful, heartfelt scene with his wife Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby) before his untimely death.
Antony Sher does a star turn in the role of Sir John Falstaff. As Falstaff, the hotheaded and choleric rogue becomes a comical character. You would not believe that Mr. Sher, who has conquered Shakespeare's tragedy “Macbeth” and is set to do “King Lear” this summer at RSC's British home in Stratford, has a flair for a comic reprobate like Falstaff. With a flushed red face with gray whiskers and a roly-poly paunch, he looks more jocular than the villain Sir John actually is. Mr. Sher sometimes goes a bit too far in making Falstaff sympathetic, but it works later in the play when Hal has become king and renounces Falstaff. Whatever we feel for Falstaff, he is one of the wicked, and ultimately must be punished by Hal.
Presenting admirable productions of four great Shakespearean plays, the RSC is giving New Yorkers their spring theatrical adventure.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.