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STRATFORD’S BREATH OF KINGS OFFERS BOLD AND BUMPY REBELLION

Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: Breath of Kings Rebellion (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 23 August, 2016

STRATFORD’S BREATH OF KINGS
OFFERS BOLD AND BUMPY REBELLION

It takes intrepid Shakespeare fanatics to endure and appreciate the bombast of Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V all in one day but that’s the challenge for Stratford Theatre attendees to the Graham Abbey conceived and adapted Breath of Kings/Rebellion & Redemption this summer. Audiences can choose to break them into their two separate parts (Rebellion & Redemption) but to fully appreciate the diverse repertory company, it’s best to summon up the swagger and bravado of Shakespeare’s best soldiers and plunge right in.

As seasoned theatregoers know, it’s a bumpy rollercoaster ride with the long-winded grandiloquence of Richard II slowing Bolingbroke’s eventual drive to the throne. It’s actually a pretty simple story of political missteps with Richard II’s underestimation of Bolingbroke, allowing ego and advisors to mistakenly send the future Henry IV (Bolingbroke) into exile. Bolingbroke’s complicity in the King’s murder is the second major misstep, both in terms of reconciling his own guilt and his countrymen’s loyalties and ambitions.

As both adaptor and lead actor (Bolingbroke/Henry IV), one can’t help but suspect that the incisive cutting and trimming Graham Abbey achieved in bringing the four plays in under six hours ran into significant snags when paring down his own character’s bluster. Mr. Abbey offers up an interesting and forceful Henry IV but the external posturing and pontification often detracts from the audience’s understanding of the usurper’s motivations, inner struggles and tortured soul.

Tom Rooney as Richard II delivers a more nuanced, assertively suppliant forcibly departing King who understands both the power and burdens of the hollow crown. The glory of the Stratford Festival, of course, remains its ability to tell a story with clarity, cleverness and panache and transforming the Tom Patterson Theatre into an arena with the audience stacked on top of the playing fields, battle fields and courts kept most theatre members engaged. Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design shrewdly converts the stage from a dirt battle field (actually something similar to tire shreds to keep the dust down) to the court with the help of a few brooms, rakes and shovels. Yannik Larivée’s costume design is inventive and helpful in determining who’s who and composer and sound designer Debashis Sinha underscores the intermittent action with a strong guiding hand without tromping on the language.

In Part II of Rebellion, Geraint Wyn Davies’ Falstaff is as savvy as he is salacious and leads us through Henry IV Part 1 with gusto and intelligence. Johnathan Sousa as Henry Percy/Hotspur is a feisty, fur-covered, single-minded warrior with enough humanity that one feels sorry for the treachery that leads to his ill-fated demise. Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal survives a slow start where he is gobbled up in scenes with more seasoned actors. Fortunately, he hits his stride midway and despite some seeming vocal strain or limits, stays focused and carries the day. His best scenes are with the infinitely likable Davies as Falstaff and together, they bring Rebellion and the trimmed Henry IV, Part 1 to a satisfying conclusion.

Kate Hennig as Mistress Quickly makes understatedly bold choices and clearly runs the Boar’s Head, Michelle Giroux as Doll Tearsheet captures the pathetic hell bent on survival heart of the character and Stephen Russell as the Earl of Westmoreland is solid from start to finish. Nigel Shawn Williams also excels as the Earl of Northumberland with too many other fine performances to mention.

Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman carefully blend the sights, sounds, speeches and choreography of these two plays with experienced eyes and a clear vision. The heart of the history plays centers on the Kings (and men who would be King) but the rapid pulse of each scene is accomplished by the parade of actors playing the Dukes, Duchesses, Bishops, Earls and Queens. The Stratford Festival is blessed by the depth of its overall company and the artistic team casts well with a strong and surprisingly liberal color and gender conscious approach with women in men’s roles and mixed-race families that adroitly allow the words and talent to carry the day. Both Breath of Kings Rebellion and Breath of Kings Redemption play through September 24 in the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Performance Chronicle

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