At the end of January I went down to London to watch King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings at the Barbican – performances of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V, to mark the 400th anniversary since the year of Shakespeare’s death.
Richard II was shown on Tuesday evening, Henry IV part 1 Wednesday, Henry IV part 2 Thursday at one o’clock and Henry V Thursday evening. It was an incredibly busy few days but very much worth it.
“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings”
The plays deal with a contentious time in English history. The deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke – later Henry IV – is arguably the catalyst for the War of the Roses, the brawling civil war that would tear England apart for years to follow (and is explored further in Shakespeare’s other tetralogy of plays Henry VI parts 1, 2 & 3, and Richard III.)
Set during the last two years of his reign, Richard II is the play with which I was most familiar, having read it and seen it performed twice before. David Tennant returned to the lead role and headed an excellent cast, many of whom would return in different roles throughout the four plays. Oliver Ford Davies was particularly brilliant as the Duke of York, bringing a weary, long-suffering aspect to the role which led to many moments of humour (especially the scene where he and the Duchess are praying to the newly crowned Bolingbroke.)
Having been to the cinema live broadcast in 2013, I already knew of the twist in this production regarding the Duke of Aumerle (son of the Duke of York and a supporter of Richard). There is a particular intensity of feeling between the King and his cousin in this adaptation, culminating in a kiss in III.3 after Richard, sliding towards his downfall, has faced Northumberland and agreed to Bolingbroke’s demands.
“Or I’ll be buried in the King’s highway,
Some way of common trade where subject’s feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head,
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live,
And buried once, why not upon my head?
Aumerle, thou weepest, my tender-hearted cousin.”
This makes it all the more tragic when Richard realises that it is Aumerle that has stabbed him in his prison cell at the end of the play (the murderer’s identity changed from the original text, but to great effect).
When the Telegraph reviewed the BBC’s Hollow Crown in 2012 (a televised adaptation of the same four plays) they said of Ben Whishaw’s Richard “It was a virtuoso performance but not a moving one”. I couldn’t agree more, and think it perfectly illustrates the factor that makes Tennant’s performance as Richard so unequivocally good. He portrays a King that, for all his vanities, is quick-witted and able to connect with the people around him. When he says that he “feel[s] want, taste[s] grief, need[s] friends” like any other man, you believe him. The audience sympathises with Tennant’s Richard. You’re not merely witnessing a former King feeling sorry for himself, but a man in despair.
The dark intensity of the main scenes in the play – aided by the haunting chants of the company’s singers – are broken up by more light-hearted moments that afford the audience a chance to take a breath and even laugh.
“Our scene if alter’d from a serious thing,
And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King'”
I think it’s fair to say the BBC’s The Hollow Crown completely squashed out all the humour of the play. Whilst it’s a historical tragedy at its core, there’s still plenty of moments that can be played for comic effect. The version I saw live at the Globe last summer included some particularly funny moments. Both the gage scene at the start of act IV (where just about everybody starts issuing challenges by hurling their gloves to the floor) and the aforementioned scene in act V where the Duchess of York tries to hide her husband’s boots and out-pray him, were played with a frantic energy that garnered lots of laughs from the audience. Whilst darker in tone, at the Barbican David Tennant also managed to inject humour into Shakespeare’s words. Some of the play’s most serious scenes had an ironic, mocking humour, such as when Richard calls for his cousin to take the crown in much the same tone one would call their pet dog to heel, during his abdication.
To conclude, I count myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to see this beautiful adaptation, of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, live in London. The staging, though simplistic with regards to use of props, was clever and created the right atmosphere at the right time by using projections alongside a soundtrack of trumpets and choral voices. The cast breathed life into every line. Very little was cut or re-ordered from Shakespeare’s original words and yet this production managed to put its own spin on the story, creating something quite unique.
As the new King Henry vowed to “voyage to the Holy Land, To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” I was ready for Wednesday night and the next chapter in Shakespeare’s enduring tale.
In keeping with Shakespeare I have split my review into two parts (I found I had far too much to say to fit into one post, if I’m honest). Part two, focusing on the two Henrys, will follow shortly.