400 Years and Counting: Why We Keep Coming Back to Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Ever since I’ve been able to afford to go to the theater, I’ve seen more Shakespeare than most any other kind of live performance. Part of that fuzzy statistic is sheer availability—there is nearly always a Shakespeare production up somewhere in New York, even if you don’t (and I don’t) count Sleep No More. But part of it is this other thing, the what that draws me (and basically everyone else) back to Shakespeare over and again. Quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive. Look at Beyoncé. Keep looking. Shakespeare—now four hundred years dead—still packs theaters with audiences eager for poetry and jokes, for works that are neither high nor low but transcendent, heterogeneous, many voiced.

“King and Country” ended this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, a cycle of four of Shakespeare’s best and best-known history plays: Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V. Performed in repertory, each of the productions had overlapping characters: Bolingbrook, Hotspur, Hal, Falstaff, Pistol appear and reappear, shifting across time and place and situation. The Royal Shakespeare Company first began to mount the cycle in 2013, beginning with Richard II and ending in spring 2014 with Henry V. They’ve since taken it on the road to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and now Brooklyn. The original cast came along too: a long-tressed and gold-leafed David Tennant as Richard II (marking his first time on stage in the United States); a stiff-limbed and quick-tongued Antony Sher as Falstaff; a brusque and brutal Jasper Britton as Henry Bolingbrook, the future IV; a chameleon-like but utterly charming Alex Hassel as Hal, the future V.

“King and Country” makes its interests clear in the title. The cycle’s thematic centrifugal force is leadership: what makes a king good, or bad, for a nation. Richard II, born into his crown, wears it lazily until it is too late. Henry IV, who (700 year old spoiler alert) usurps Richard in the first play, wears his without comfort or security in the next two. Henry V—secured by inheritance and shaped as a king in contrast to mostly bad examples (the notorious Falstaff, the most loveable awful person on any stage, as well as Hal’s own guilt-ridden father) —provides the model for wise governance, strong leadership. He knows when to fight, when to woo, and when to take a punch. Most of all, he cares.

Shakespeare

Somehow I always end up crying during Henry V’s climactic St. Crispin’s Day speech, even when I’m watching it on YouTube: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”—I am tearing up already. The Hundred Years War was bad for everyone and kings are stupid! I am smarter than my feelings! (Eternal spoiler alert: I’m not.) But beyond Henry’s incredible victory at Agincourt—his army’s English longbows were a kind of 15th century machine gun—heartbreak and impossible decisions dominate the cycle. In a crushing revision from the original text, it is Aumerle (a wonderful Sam Marks), Richard’s beloved friend (and partner in a single, desperate kiss), who strikes the killing blow. Women recently widowed howl for revenge, women about to be widowed prepare with mournful song. Nym and Bardolph, Hal’s old drinking buddies, are hanged for thievery with his blessing. Falstaff dies, publicly rebuked by his beloved prince.

The details I remember: the white bottoms of Richard II’s feet; the living Henry IV lying corpselike; Falstaff calling his military recruits, a parade of poor, “food for powder”; Pistol’s Troll-doll hair and wild energy; a tennis ball held, taunting, in a golden hand; the set, shifting and cathedral-like; a stage floor that sometimes looks aflame; the music, all voices and horns and pipes; a faint smell of leeks.

“King and Country” was a marvel: comprehensive, cohesive, transportive, fully embodied. Tennant’s Richard not only is weighted down, but solidifies, with pain and defeat. Sher’s Falstaff, frazzled and red, plays the knave wry and slow. He is a man whose body has paid for his vices. Hassel’s Hal is calculating but not cold—believable as lout, as king, as military hero. Buoyed up by a tremendous cast and thoughtful direction, the production bridges a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the last days of the 14th century to the 16th to now. These plays are still very much about centuries-old political machinations, but they also showcase what Shakespeare does best: melodic lines rich with meaning and characters that set standards for complexity, rousing patriotic fervor and wrenching critiques of war’s cost, sword fights and flirting, dick jokes and slapstick. It’s all muddled up, but that’s the point. It’s worked, after all, for over 400 years.

Shakespeare

Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM

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