Looking for a way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which comes on April 23?
“King & Country,” the Royal Shakespeare Company’s four-part cycle of English history dramas (including “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V”), which is now playing in repertory at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is meant for those who like to see Shakespeare plays performed by a seasoned cast, in a traditional style, with lavish production values and without any cuts to the text.
There are many fine companies in New York that regularly present Shakespeare plays. But more often than not, their productions are scaled-down for budgetary reasons. Shakespeare’s history plays are especially dense and massive, calling for pageantry, fight choreography, family drama and comic interludes, which may explain why they are so rarely performed here.
Taken as a whole, “King & Country” presents the four history plays as a chronological, coherent and compelling narrative about a single royal family (i.e. the House of Lancaster) rising to power and then defending itself against internal conspiracy and in civil and foreign wars. Although there’s a lot of plot to take in, it’s not so different from a “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” marathon.
Against the backdrop of the presidential election, the plays offer food for thought on the requisite qualities of a successful political leader who can manage a large country and inspire confidence.
Gregory Doran (artistic director of the RSC) stages the entire cycle with liveliness, medieval flair and textual clarity, bringing out multilayered performances from his large cast, many of whom appear in multiple plays.
Standouts include David Tennant’s self-loving and dangerously naive Richard, Antony Sher’s thoroughly detailed and sympathetic Falstaff, Jasper Britton’s burly and uneasy Henry IV and Alex Hassell’s virile and perceptive Prince Hal/Henry V. The actors are joined by vocalists and musicians who occasionally turn up on the upper levels of the theater.