'Henry IV Part I,' 'Henry IV Part II,' 'Henry V': Theater Review

Henry IV Tavern Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Richard Termine
Antony Sher's brilliant Falstaff is the standout performance in this presentation of the Bard's Henry plays.

Brooklyn Academy of Music hosts the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings.'

Immersive theater is all the rage these days, but it usually involves the audience interacting with the performers and taking part in the dramatic action. Nothing of the type occurs in the Royal Shakespeare Company's King and Country cycle of the history plays commonly known as the Henriad. But the four productions — Richard II (reviewed separately), Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V — fully succeed in their goal of plunging us into their world of royal intrigues and epic battles. The complete cycle can be seen over the course of a long weekend, and it’s a deeply rewarding — if also an inevitably taxing — experience.

The company's artistic director Gregory Doran has staged all four works, giving the cycle a welcome cohesive feel. When the plays are seen in succession, the characters and themes resonate with greater richness, although they also serve as a reminder that Shakespeare would have benefited from a judicious editor. Not for nothing are the two parts of Henry IV often significantly trimmed and combined into a single evening. Each work contains more than a few extraneous scenes.   

These productions are largely traditional in style, with only a few modernistic flourishes. At the beginning of Henry IV Part II, Rumour, played by Antony Byrne, emerges clad in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and takes a selfie with the audience as Internet-style projections fill the rear of the stage. In Henry V, Oliver Ford Davies' cardigan-clad Chorus resembles an avuncular professor, infusing his commentary with a decidedly folksy feel. Contrasted with the otherwise old-school staging, the devices are distracting but harmless.

The large ensemble, many playing multiple roles, displays the high level of polish and ease with the verse for which the RSC is noted. The true standout is Antony Sher, delivering a landmark performance as Sir John Falstaff. Outfitted in a garish wig and loads of padding, the actor makes a delightful entrance, woozily crawling out of Prince Hal's bed, which is also occupied by two giggling women. Sher superbly conveys quiet cunning as well as boisterous vulgarity, adding depths to the character often left unexplored. He's endlessly entertaining, even if Shakespeare, in his typical crowd-pleasing manner, wears out Falstaff's welcome in Part II through overuse.

Strangely, Sher is deprived of one his character's most powerful moments, at the end of Part II, when the newly crowned King Henry brutally dresses down his former compatriot. The staging positions the actor with his back to the audience, and although his slumping shoulders are highly expressive, we're not shown his despairing face.

Alex Hassell has the challenging task of portraying the dissolute Prince Hal's elevation into the commanding figure capable of stirring his troops to battlefield glory. He's more effective in the former aspect, not quite displaying the needed charismatic presence later on. His vocal delivery is oddly muted, as evidenced by his not particularly rousing rendition of the famous St. Crispin's Day speech. But it's an intelligent performance enlivened by welcome doses of humor, especially evident in his delightful wooing of the winsome French princess Katherine (Jennifer Kirby). Hassell's square-jawed handsomeness serves him well in the role; it's rare to find an actor who looks as good wearing a crown.     

Jasper Britton's reflective Henry IV movingly conveys the guilt of having been responsible for Richard II's death. Among the supporting players, standouts include Matthew Needham's dynamic Hotspur; Davies and Jim Hooper's rambunctious Justice Shallow and Justice Silence; and Simon Yadoo's hilariously unintelligible Scottish soldier (the same aspect is true, less felicitously, of Sarah Parks' Mistress Quickly).

The productions are largely devoid of visual flourishes, save for effective projections, some deafening pyrotechnics during the battle scenes, and a striking acrylic floor lit from below. Trumpeters perched on balconies at both sides of the stage provide appropriate military fanfares, and the costumes reference the period in sleek, non-slavish fashion.

These Henry productions are always thoroughly competent if rarely galvanizing, something that can be said about many RSC offerings. But what they lack in imagination they make up for with intelligence and coherence. In this year marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death, those are qualities not to be taken lightly.

Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn
Jasper Britton, Alex Hassell, Martin Bassindale, Andrew Westfield, Simon Thorp, Sean Chapman, Antony Byrne, Matthew Needham, Jennifer Kirby, Robert Gilbert, Emma King, Joshua Richards, Jim Hooper, Keith Osborn, Nicholas Gerard-Martin, Simon Yadoo, Antony Sher, Sam Marks, Sarah Parks, Daniel Abbott, Christopher Middleton, Obioma Ugoala, Evelyn Miller, Leigh Quinn, Dale Mathurin, Oliver Ford Davies  
Director: Gregory Doran
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting designer: Tim Mitchell
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound designer: Martin Slavin
Movement director: Michael Ashcroft

Fight director: Terry King
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Royal Shakespeare Company, Ohio State University