The Brits need no excuse to do Shakespeare large; any year can be made to commemorate something. Still, the 400th anniversary of His death in April 1616 has prompted the Royal Shakespeare Company to new heights, or at any rate breadths. Batching its productions of the four “Henriad” plays under the single lumpy banner of King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, it has brought the huge package, including heaps of actors, musicians, tech and support teams, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a five-week visit. The parade is impressive, if not always consistent, but the inconsistency is a kind of fidelity, mostly tracing the inconsistent contours of the plays themselves. So whether you should see one or some or all four of them — and if all four, whether piecemeal or in a three-day, 13-hour binge, as I did — depends in part on your sit bones and in part on your taste for the posh and gilded RSC style but mostly on something more fundamental. Which Shakespeare do you like? The poet? The tragedian? The revisionist historian? The leering cut-up? The Henriad plays, like these productions, offer something marvelous of each for everyone, and then sometimes too much, in too much of a jumble.
However mismatched in tone and genre, these “sad stories of the death of kings” are at least continuous historically. The first, Richard II, written around 1595, is most like a traditional Shakespearean tragedy. It focuses on the last two years in the reign of that 14th-century monarch, during which his personal flaws (he’s intemperate) become problems of governance that lead to his betrayal by Henry Bolingbroke. (Spoiler alert: Richard is murdered.) Bolingbroke, having seized the crown, thus becomes, under his new, royal name, the nominal star of the next two plays: Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, written a year or so apart. Part I is a comedy-drama mostly concerning Henry IV’s elder son, Prince Henry, known as Hal, a black sheep given to carousing and womanizing in the seedy bars and brothels of Eastcheap. Leading Hal into disrepute is Sir John Falstaff, an obese and decrepit knight who, with his cronies, provides a fun-house mirror of court life. But in Part II, which appears to have been thrown together to give audiences more of the already popular Falstaff, Shakespeare forces the prince to grow up. Here we get a taste of the playwright’s penchant for doubles: Hal earns his patrimony by fighting another Henry — Henry Percy, known as Hotspur for his impetuous temper. Part II, which ends with Hal’s coronation, and his concomitant rejection of his seedy compatriots, is something of a mess, all but abandoning the political story for long stretches of Falstaffian high jinks. The last play of the tetralogy, Henry V, makes up for that. It is mostly a war play, as Prince Hal, now king upon his father’s death, leads England to an unlikely victory over the French at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day.
The staging, by the RSC’s Gregory Doran, is in the modern-traditional mode, with trumpets and plainchant and fog and chiaroscuro and neutral settings enhanced by handsome projections. The costumes combine gorgeous fabrics and period profiles with what looked to me like Lululemon cuts. (Certainly the lean Hal and Hotspur of Alex Hassell and Sean Chapman appear to do plenty of yoga.) But it would take more than this and a few directorial flourishes, such as a cape that becomes a map of England and a hilarious rendering of the famous fuck-you gift from France’s dauphin to Henry V, to take this staging anywhere near the avant-garde. Its interpretive work is instead done almost exclusively on a conceptual level, and achieved through the acting, which is excellent when it isn’t shouty or swallowed.
This kind of quiet rethinking works best in Richard II, which is to my mind the best of the plays in any case. Here Doran has elected to make Richard’s snappishness into snark and his feyness flat-out gay. As Richard, David Tennant has no trouble realizing the conceit. (He is helped in this by a Tiny Tim wig — and I don’t mean Dickens’s Tiny Tim.) Other productions have explored this possibility, latent in the text; a British television Henriad called The Hollow Crown featured Ben Whishaw in the role. But here Richard’s friendship with his cousin the Duke of Aumerle (Sam Marks) is quite explicitly romantic, and then a textual alteration at the end, probably too much of a liberty, makes it explicitly tragic. Tennant, a longtime Shakespearean, naturally has the vocal skills to get the text across smoothly, but his exceptional wit, no surprise to those who know him as the latest Doctor in the Doctor Who series, is what makes his performance the standout of the Henriad. Without that wit the verbal intricacy of the text — almost uniquely in the canon, Richard II is entirely in verse — becomes laborious instead of beautiful. And if the text isn’t beautiful no tragedy can occur; what have we lost except another narcissistic king?
But it is on that note that interpretation of the Henriad meets its limits. Shoved together as one narrative, the story is almost indecipherable in its loyalties; each play seems to contradict the assumptions of its predecessor, much as the kings themselves do. Perhaps this is the point of producing the works together, but having watched them in quick succession, I am not sure that the advantages of plot continuity outweigh the disadvantages of moral discontinuity. The installments pull too hard in different directions. Especially in the Henry IV pair, which are probably the most popular of the bunch, the chaos of tone and genre uses up so much of the director’s energy that not much of the material (until the renunciation scene at the end) makes an emotional impression. This even though Antony Sher shines as a commanding, endlessly listenable, and visually perfect Falstaff. (He looks like Humpty Dumpty with a beard.) Still, the more pointed the comedy, the less everything else makes sense.
I do not think I was the only one tired by the time we got to Henry V. Popular for its rousing martial speeches (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), it is the most difficult of the four to stage, with its many battle and encampment scenes. With the same few actors running in diagonals in flashing light, the production seemed to have run out of tricks and troops. The laughs here are also less hearty; lacking Falstaff (who dies offstage) the story now depends for comic relief on second-string commedia types. (By now, too, the double and triple casting of the plays begins to cause confusion.) It would almost be a downer of an ending to a mostly successful reading of the plays were it not for the post-victory scene Shakespeare seems to have tacked on as an afterthought. One of the loveliest in the canon, it concerns Henry’s attempt to woo the French princess he’s fallen in love with, though she is a daughter of his late enemy and barely speaks any English. (Her maid acts as interpreter: “Oui, dat de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits.”) Suddenly we are in the world of the great romantic comedies, with their access, through humor, to profound human feeling. Much Ado About Nothing was first performed the same year as Henry V.
This unexpected gift — unexpected no matter how many times you’ve seen it — sends you out on a high. Shakespeare wasn’t, after all, much of a historian; his relation of the Henriad events is largely a figment of his Elizabeth-flattering imagination. But he was quite a spectacular prognostician. He anticipated us, and how can we not love him for it?
King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings is at the BAM Harvey Theater through May 1.