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Jul 20, 2016, 12:25
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Stratford Festival
Through September 24
Both Tom Patterson Theatre

By Augustine Warner

Basically, Graham Abbey left out the slow parts.
The veteran actor, director and theater company founder pieced together four of Shakespeare’s History plays into two blocks of theater.
That’s “Richard II” and “Henry IV Part 1” into “Breath of Kings: Rebellion” and “Henry IV Part 2” and “Henry V” into “Breath of Kings: Redemption.”
Unless you really know the four plays, and not many do, it’s a procession of characters in medieval garb plotting, killing and waging war until they need to make peace to rest up for another war, either civil war or foreign war.
While many members of the audience in the Tom Patterson which has been converted into theater in the round were possibly thinking about Britain’s Brexit vote by the people, the characters on stage were skipping the election process to change things and instead resorting to murder, plotting and war.
The biggest single set piece is one of Shakespeare’s great scenes, Agincourt, in the Hundred Years War, a battle thinly understood even today.
It’s best known for that “band of brothers” phrase, so often used in so many contexts today.
The battle actually showed one of the problems of a mass show like this, with its enormous casts, casts so large many of the roles are played by women, probably to make sure the predominantly male cast of characters doesn’t overwhelm every other show this season.
The size of the casts can mean some essential but bad choices.
In his second season at Stratford, Araya Mengesha just isn’t ready for the roles as Prince Hal in “Rebellion” and Henry V in “Redemption.”
He delivers a word perfect but lifeless performance, although that could improve later in the season.
The difficulty with this whole pageant is that fewer and fewer people even know who these people are, especially Richard II (Tom Rooney), a little-produced play about a weak king toppled by a member of the extended royal clan, Bolingbroke (Abbey), who becomes King Henry IV.
His times were so complicated that Shakespeare wrote two plays about the king who was a usurper and who was the father of England’s most famous warrior king, Henry V.
While the kings and nobles are confusing, one character isn’t, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, Sir John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), flamboyant soldier and a truly party hearty type, abandoned by a protégé at what might have been his greatest moment, when the new Henry V, pronounces, “I do not know you, old man.”
It’s that moment of transition from heir to king, from partyer to ruler, to adulthood.
It’s also when he starts being both diplomat and warrior, going into battle with a crown on his helm.
It’s one of those signs of the way a repertory company works that I once saw Wyn Davies deliver a wonderful performance as the king in a music-filled production of “Henry V.”
That transition of roles also gives rise to shifts like Tom Rooney from the weak role of Richard II to the key role of Chorus in Henry V, a strong performance, and Wyn Davies to the Welsh soldier Captain Fluellen.
It’s often interesting at Stratford and at the Shaw Festival to see star performers with relatively small parts in another show.
For veteran viewers of Shakespeare, you can probably put a scale together of the four plays, top to bottom, with almost all picking “Henry V” as the best.
There are famous scenes, like the night before Agincourt or the scene in “Henry IV: Part 2” when the king learns the old prophecy that he will die in Jerusalem means not that he will die in the Holy City on Crusade but in the Jerusalem Chamber in the palace, immediately.
If you are going to Stratford and plan to see one of these shows, that might be a mistake.
Instead, take the time to see both and many performances are set up for both in one day.
If you are dedicated, there are any number of books about the characters and the time and you could read the full-length plays because these versions are cut substantially.
But, you could also follow in the spirit of the plays, something which might have been done four centuries ago when the audience walked away from the Globe, undoubtedly talking about what they had just seen on the stage.
You can do the same, noshing in one of Stratford’s many restaurants, even during the time between the afternoon and evening performances.
You might even do that high school English stuff, plots, themes, characters, even history behind Shakespeare’s works.
But, really the idea is to follow what the playwright was doing, putting on a show on a stage for an audience.
In those days, it would have been a crowd packed into the Globe.
Here, it’s a crowd packed into the Tom Patterson looking down from the arena onto the stage on the floor, with the opening play staged on a performance area covered with soil.
Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman have really done a wonderful job with Abbeys script and the many entrances of the Patterson, allowing the cast to move one and off quickly and keeping the stories moving along.
You have to relax in your seat, often not knowing the stories and just let the words flow over you and let these stories of the beginnings of the modern era rattle through your mind.
You can also watch some really strong performances, Rooney, Wyn Davies’ Old Gardener and Falstaff, Stephen Russell’s John of Gaunt, Johnathan Sousa’s Hotspur, Kate Hennig’s Mistress Quickly and Captain Gower and Michelle Giroux’ Doll Tearsheet and Montjoy the French Herald.
It’s really worth allocating a full day for “Breath of Kings: Rebellion” and “Breath of Kings: Redemption.”

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