I’m a little bit at a loss, mostly because I’m still overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of the production. The play and its second part redemption take Shakespeare’s greatest dramas (Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V) and weave them together into a vivid, clear and magnificent history lesson – aided of course by the outstanding cast of the Stratford festival and actor/director/ write Graham Abbey who is responsible for the play. This is how it’s done. This is how (and I am tempted to compare it with a historically accurate and better written Game of Thrones but that wouldn’t do it justice at all) you follow the lives of kings, queens, their heirs and enemies and their lives, by allowing their soliloquies and scenes come to life in a way that captures the audience and is riveting and stunning in its complex simplicity. We see Tom Rooney turn from proud hero to lost king, Graham Abbey as Bolingbroke rise from shunned son to newly hailed king Heny, who is a hesitant leader with a hot-headed son Araya Mengesha, who has to grow up in battle to be formed into a worthy successor by steel and blood.
With Graham Abbey’s adaption of the humongous plays they turn into a very intimate chamber play, despite the violence of battles, betrayals and brutalities. This is when history becomes a clear, a clean line of meaning, an interpretation that loses nothing of Shakespeare’s magic, but contributes by focusing on visceral scenes that grab the audience and never let go.
The stage itself is beautifully empty. Just a flat surface filled with wood chips. and yet: the less influential Richard becomes, the less wood chips are on the stage, the smaller the parts of a united Britain are. At last there is everything gone, shoved towards the edges, when Richard gives away his crown to Henry Bolingbroke. And only years, if not decades later , during the battles against Scots and Welsh purpose, the ground is filled again, a country united in a war against each other. Again it’s beautiful in its simplicity and yet powerful and brutal.
Part one ends on a high note: the battle won, Henry saved by his unruly son Hal, and Sir John Falstaff (a brilliant and fat suited, sweaty Geraint Wyn Davies) has the last words … let’s kick up some more dirt tomorrow, or something to that extent.
I truly hope we get the textbook and a DVD of both parts soon. This is how theatre is supposed to be. Imagination at its best.
And yes, adds the shallow within me with a silent snicker: it doesn’t hurt that Graham Abbey’s Henry gets a huge cross tattooed on his back and then shows off his naked torso while thankfully slowly slipping into his shirt. 😎