Shakespeare’s history plays are some of his best. Epic tales with tragedy and comedy, love and war, politics and history are brought to life on stage, with the storyline of some characters spanning years and multiple plays. The RSC and Barbican have, over the last few years, presented the first four as separate productions but to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year, unite them as a single ticket. King and Country is Richard II, Henry IV part i, Henry IV part ii and Henry V is a marathon package deal of roughly twelve hours of theatre (plus intervals) spread over several days. A large ensemble cast play all roles across the four plays, with the same actors satisfyingly playing the same parts that stretch across multiple productions. Set and design also carry through; this quartet is slick, engaging and brings together original and contemporary practice.
Big names in the cast are an initial draw and live up to their hype (David Tennant, Antony Sher, Julian Glover), but the thirty-strong ensemble are just as good, if not better. Sam Marks as Aumerle, Poins and the Constable of France is excellent, particularly as Prince Hal’s laddish sidekick with a magnetic energy that bounces around the stage and fills the 1,156-seat theatre with youthful vigour. Matthew Needham comically interprets Hotspur; random, extreme outbursts get laughs, making the character’s tragic flaw the reason for his defeat. He also plays Mowbray and Shadow, the latter being a minor role but played with such commendable contrast that he is unrecognisable. Jennifer Kirby is a feisty Lady Percy and a naughty and nice Katherine, endowing both small roles with heaps of personality. The best comedic performances include Oliver Ford Davies as Shallow (also a fantastic Duke of York and Chorus), Emma King as Doll Tearsheet, Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly and Joshua Gardner as Fluellen.
Tennant is just as exquisite as Richard II as two years ago, and Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke/Henry IV is endowed with pathos, guilt and an extraordinary character journey. Alex Hassell is delightful as the devil-may-care Prince Hall, but his quieter, matter of fact Henry V is sensitive but less dynamic. He aims for intimacy rather than bombast and arrogance, a unique interpretation but one that is not overly effective due to a lack of power, particularly in his famous speeches. Antony Sher nails Falstaff’s characterisation, but his even, rhythmic delivery lacks variation and harks back to the old fashioned declamatory RSC stage speech – hugely disappointing.
Stephen Bromson Lewis’ set is the same as it was for Richard II’s performance two years ago and has little variation over the four productions. Paired with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, the audience sees austere courts, earthy battlefields and debauched public houses that don’t interfere with the action. The acrylic floor of under lit ploughed furrows is the surprise of the event, not viewable from the stalls closest to the stage but adds a striking dynamic and atmosphere from the gods: a delight for us peasants with the cheapest seats. Costumes (presumably also by Lewis) hint at a time period, but have a contemporary, minimalist touch that please the eye but not dominating.
There are some odd directorial choices by Gregory Doran in these otherwise stunning productions. Rumour (Antony Byrne) is in contemporary dress, accompanied by a projected digital cascade of hashtags and “rumour”. The Chorus (Oliver Ford Davies) is similarly dressed, which makes sense with the text. The token technology reference? Much less so. These are jarring in their modernity, unneeded and contribute nothing to the meaning and aesthetic of the plays. He misses an opportunity to put Henry V on the elevated walkway heavily used in Richard II; instead he lowers him to a wooden cart and diminishes the gravity of the St. Crispan’s Day speech.
It was an utter joy to see Doran incorporate audience interaction; even though there weren’t many of these moments. They unite the audience and actors in a love for Shakespeare’s work, bringing everyone together in a celebration of living, breathing theatre rather than maintaining a distant reverence for it. Henry V’s adorable insecurity in the presence of French princess Katherine leads to asking the audience for advice, and Hassell’s corpsing during a pub scene as Hal (when an audience member loudly blew his nose and another actor acknowledged it within the action) was a delight. His easy confidence with this style of performance clearly stems from his early work with The Factory and The Globe; Doran should have exploited this more, particularly during the character’s youthful exploits. The audience could have easily been his army or his mates down the pub more often.
Though RSC productions have often missed the mark in the past, these four are almost as on it as they can get. They do not force a modern concept that only tenuously relates to the themes in the script, but they are not stuck in a stilted, stuffy style of yore. Doran’s productions are unified, alive and vibrant with stellar design and performances. Here’s hoping they see life in the UK beyond this Barbican run and their international tour this spring.