“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” So says Richard II, significantly, near the start of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King and Country” — the cycle of four royal-history dramas which will trace the succession of the House of Lancaster in astonishing repertory at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater through May 1.
I was able to see just the first two —“Richard II,” starring the mesmerizing David Tennant (“Doctor Who,” “Broadchurch”) in his U.S. stage debut, and “Henry IV, Part I,” with the masterly Antony Sher unrecognizable as a fuzzy, red-faced, debauched yet self-assured mountain of a Falstaff.
While New York theater shows distressing disinterest in the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC’s month at BAM makes the omission even more conspicuous.
Indeed, the stories of kings are sad but the productions I saw are exhilarating—played without gimmick and with an exquisitely trained company of almost three dozen. For all the beauty of the language, the actors never let studied artifice take the place of lucidity, psychological nuance and roaring action.
It has been three years since Gregory Doran became artistic director and, to my mind, the historic company has not recently felt so energized. On a single rough-hewn set with seemingly effortless projections, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ designs whisk us from scenes of pomp to raucous taverns, from pious funerals to muscular battles. In “Richard II,” celestial-sounding women chant from one side of the stage while military brass dominates the other. In “Henry,” the chanting is deep, male, ominous.
These are male-dominated works, of course, with women appearing seldom and mostly in decorative roles, like garni on a plate. On the other hand, Tennant’s Richard finds much to admire in his androgynous self, draping his long bones, tossing his long auburn hair and making capricious, imperious decisions with a Christ-like assumption of infallibility.
We meet Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke with Richard, but really get to know his conflicted sense of goodness and contradictory desires for peace as King Henry IV. Alex Hassell persuasively conveys lusty, boyish rebellion and future maturity as Prince Hal, while Matthew Needham enjoys the shallow menace of throne envy.
On the subject of what Richard calls the “hollow crown,” which will be passed this month through generations, he embraces it, teases others with it and, in just one of this cycle’s provocative contradictions, treats it both as a woodland garland and a crown of thorns.