First Nighter: The Royal Shakespeare Company Turns Four Shakespeare History Plays into Solid Gold

Anyone devoted to William Shakespeare and, specifically, to his history plays had better make plans instantly to see The Royal Shakespeare Company's, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey.
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Anyone devoted to William Shakespeare and, specifically, to his history plays had better make plans instantly to see The Royal Shakespeare Company's King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey. It's guided with thrilling pomp and virtuosity and just about flawlessly by company artistic director Gregory Doran.

The series -- Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V, co-produced with Ohio State University -- is so defiantly a must-see event that all this reviewer can do is salute it (without the trumpets and singing inextricably apart of it) and attempt not to oversell the superb manner in which it depicts the 14th-15th-century succession of three monarchs as their "hollow crown," in Shakespeare's phrase, passes from one to the next.

There are so many glories in the four plays -- that are best attended in chronological order and through May 1 -- that the only thing to do is list at least some of them, starting with the performance not by those taking on the roles of kings Richard (David Tennant), Henry IV (Jasper Britton) and Henry V (Alex Hassell) but by Antony Sher as arguably Shakespeare's most memorable figure, Sir John Falstaff.

As Bardolators know, the portly, conniving Falstaff only appears in the two Henry IVs but also threatens to dominate them. The bearded, twinkling Sher doesn't forfeit his opportunity. His performance is as round as his potbelly is protruding. He brings great oomph to the rascally Sir John's speech about honor being nothing much and therefore hardly worth, uh, honoring. When at the end of Henry IV Part II, the newly ascended Henry V, formerly a bosom companion to Falstaff, denies him, Sher's show of incredulity quickly followed by his contending lack of concern to his astonished pals is heart shattering.

As for the kings, Tennant's Richard II is elegantly imperious until he's brought low. Then he imbues the unfortunately humbled royal with notable humanity. That Tennant is tall -- as apparently Richard II was -- and in the earlier sequences wears silvery-white make-up that renders him frighteningly other-worldly only serves to heighten the affect that leads to his eventually being ignominiously deposed.

Henry IV's tragedy is that he can never overcome the guilt he carries with him when, as the scheming Henry Bolingbroke, he led the campaign to unseat Richard. In both parts of Henry IV, Britton shows the king's mounting despair over never getting to go on the crusade to Jerusalem he expected would absolve his sins. Britton also does eminently well by his shifting concerns over son Hal's apparently louche life. Perhaps Britton's finest and most emotional moment is Henry IV's death scene, including reconciliation with the remorseful Hal.

Hassell, darkly handsome and entirely convincing as an heir to the throne, runs several gamuts through the three plays in which Hal, then Henry V, appears. As Falstaff's buddy -- along with Ned Poins (Sam Marks), Bardolph (Joshua Richards,) and Pistol (Antony Byrne) -- he's the gadabout, but he effectively gets across the mask Hal wears in the early stretches by way of the soliloquy Shakespeare hands him about his deliberate loutish deception. Hassell shines -- and not just because he's wearing armor -- as bad boy in Henry IV Parts I and II and certainly as kingly warrior and then in Henry V as abashed suitor to Katherine (Jennifer Kirby). Leave it at his doing nothing wrong and everything right.

Where to start on all the other superlative King and Country elements? In the cast -- distinguished by an embarrassment of trained actors boasting expressive voices and most of those doubling and trippling -- just about every troupe member vies to be first among equals. The marvelous veteran Oliver Ford Davies is hilarious in Henry IV Part II as the properly named Justice Shallow and then is resounding and avuncular in Henry V as Chorus.

But he's only the beginning. In an unusual interpretation, Matthew Needham plays Hotspur as terminally hot under the metal collar, of course, but also as perpetually thick-headed. The energetic Sam Marks vivifies Richard II's beloved Amerce and then gets those juices flowing again as jokester Ned.

As Mistress Quickly, Sarah Parks is the essence of accommodating hostess, and Emma King is fun as Doll Tearsheet. Kirby is tough-minded as Hotspur's Lady Percy and then is irresistibly spirited as French princess Katherine. As her mother, Jane Lapotaire is coldly regal after being harshly accusatory in Richard II as the suddenly widowed Lady Gloucester. In short, there's not a weak performance in the four-part pageant.

What about the abundance of wonderful scenes that pop up in the four plays -- among them, Richard sitting down to tell sad tales of kings, the later garden scene in which politics and gardening are neatly mooted, the sequence during which Falstaff plays the King questioning Hal about his behavior and then the two switching places, Henry V visiting his soldiers in the night as Henry Leroi and later addressing his men before the battle of Agincourt? Doran and his players spice them all, and seamlessly.

Stephen Brimson Lewis is the scenic designer, and he's used many projections to help place the constantly shifting action, as Shakespeare makes a point of alternating amusing scenes with the heaviiy dramatic encounters. It needs be said that the Harvey auditorium further enhances the effect. While one repeated projection shows a Gothic interior, befitting the era in which the kings ruled, the front of the Harvey house more noticeably resembles Romanesque architecture. As a result, when trumpeters and three sopranos appear (Paul Englishby is the composer) under the highest arches, something magically time-traveling takes place.

Because Doran's productions are so rich and often subtle, Shakespeare's themes continuously rumble under the action. For instance, his depictions of old age register strongly. The dying John of Gaunt (Julian Glover), celebrating "this England," is only the first of those watched closely as the years weigh on them. Doran is helped immensely by having on hand so many older actors whose carriage and vocal delivery are thrilling as well as exemplary.

Then there's Shakespeare's most important prop: the crown. It's almost always on view -- being taken off heads, being put back on, changing hands, being looked at and coveted, sitting apart. Needless to say, the crown is the symbol of power, and often the symbol of the corruption of power. Keeping spectators' eyes on its travels and travails throughout the cycle may be Doran's crowning achievement.

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