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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Breath of Kings - Rebellion and Redemption: Ambition pays high dividends

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption
Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, Henry V by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman
Designed by Anahita Dehbonehie (set), Yannick Lavrivee (costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Debashis Sinha (composer and sound), John Stead (fight), Brad Cook (movement)
Featuring Tom Rooney, Graham Abbey, Geraint Wyn Davies, Araya Mengesha

Graham Abbey as Henry IV and Araya Mengesha as Henry V in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou
Graham Abbey has spent the better part of a decade distilling Shakespeare’s 2nd tetralogy, also known as the Henriad, down to what is now known as Breath of Kings. Taking Richard II, the first and second parts of Henry IV and Henry V and giving them roughly the same amount of performance time (~75 minutes each) to be viewed in two different sittings; Rebellion frames Richard II and Henry IV part one, while Redemption frames the latter two.

Condensing the plays suggests that Abbey has created a Cliff’s Notes version of them all, but this is unjust – a certain depth of feeling remains intact, despite the extraction of many scenes in which characters and relationships are developed. This keeps the pace clipping along at cinematic speed, and may just be the ticket to opening new (read: teenage) audiences to the charms of the Bard… with the hope that as their fascination grows so will their desire to examine the plays more fully. In fact, the abridgment of some scenes - i.e. the Salic Law speech from Henry V - should be considered by directors far more often. (I love Shakespeare, but oy does that Canterbury like to talk…)

Tom Rooney as Richard II in Breath
of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou.
The first part of Rebellion is the story of Richard II, a complex character who both arrogantly believes in the divine right of kings and comes to see that a king is still just a man whose crown can be taken away. Tom Rooney alternately hits notes of pride, fretfulness, sorrow, and philosophical resignation. He deadpans Richard’s most heinous moments of callousness and makes the audience laugh out loud, but the laughter turns to dust – Richard’s conceit is very Trumpish, and therefore contemptible. His first foil John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle, Bolingbroke’s father) is given great voice by Stephen Russell who delivers the excellent “sceptred isle” speech like one fevered and brokenhearted – and yet fails to move the coldhearted King.

Geraint Wyn Davies as John Falstaff, with members of the company
in Breath of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou
Abbey himself plays Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper, and brings more pathos to the role than usually seen – this Bolingbroke is sorta kinda sorry for the circumstances leading to his taking the crown. He is still going to take it, of course, but Abbey shows Henry IV to be less a political opportunist and more a victim of circumstances. I do not necessarily agree with this interpretation, but it remains consistent through the next two quarters of the tetralogy, which is one of the reasons it is enjoyable to see Rebellion and Redemption one after the other.

In the second half of Rebellion, Henry IV squares off against his former supporters, now rather ticked that he took the crown (and possibly murdered Richard II), instead of simply reclaiming his Lancastrian lands, like he said he would do. Beside these woes, Henry is worried about his eldest son and heir, Henry (aka Hal or Harry), who tends to carouse much with is buddies and one John Falstaff.  As the life-affirming Falstaff, there cannot be anyone better than Geraint Wyn Davies to play the part – never a buffoon, always calculating and clever, and sometimes actually sweet. At the end of the first half of Redemption when Hal casts Falstaff away so cruelly, it reveals that Hal never understood how much the old knight loved him… and Falstaff actually dies of a broken heart.

Araya Mengesha, as and like Hal, has highs and lows. He is at his best when swaggering with his mates, has an incredibly moving scene with Graham Abbey as Hal and his father Henry IV are reconciled (one of the best in the two productions together); however, he treats the audience to a superlative St. Crispian’s Day speech (wonderfully staged as well) in the second half of Redemption, chronicling the events of Henry V.

Araya Mengesha as Henry V with members of the company in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou.
With 20 company members playing the over 70 parts in the tetralogy, there are wonderfully dextrous performances from the wardrobe attendants doing all those quick-changes. Also from Carly Street and Irene Poole who each had 6 roles (I think, I lost count) and all of them forceful; from Randy Hughson as York and Pistol; from Parker Merlihan as Davy Gam – that was heartbreaking – and Jonathan Sousa as a truly hotheaded Hotspur.

It is not strictly necessary to see both Rebellion and Redemption, as either stands finely on its own; though if pressed for time I might recommend seeing Rebellion simply because it is the only version of Richard II to hit Stratford stages in almost twenty years, and Tom Rooney is such a fine actor in it.  But to get the full dividends from the efforts of this ambitious adaptation, its directors and its excellent, nimble cast, try to see them both, and in order.

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption continues at in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24th

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