Work and the daily commute, never fun at the best of times, are particularly draining under present circumstances. By the time you get home, the only thing the brain is capable of processing is the most recent episode of Batwoman. The Easter weekend, therefore, offered the chance to try something more demanding.
For ages, I have been meaning to watch King & Country, the DVD box set of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tetralogy comprising Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V. On stage (where I saw half of them), they ran in a complete four-play season cycle, so the box set offers the chance to recreate the theatrical experience.
Shakespeare’s history plays require a director capable of setting a clear context or else they become a muddle of names and dates leaving the audience unable to determine the motivation of the characters or care about their actions. With the opening play, Richard II, Gregory Doran (who directs all the tetralogy) makes clear England is divided and vividly shows the reasons why the king is not respected. Richard was implicated in the murder of Gloucester whose funeral opens the play and is staged in such a respectful manner as to make obvious the discontent running through the kingdom. Richard is shown as aloof and even sinister, constantly surrounded by gossiping cronies. After his downfall, it is easily apparent why the King—petulant and divisive—cannot be allowed to live and undermine the monarchy. There is a very strong sense of time and place with the rebels aware that in challenging the King, they are committing blasphemy by going against God’s representative on earth. If all the Bard’s plays were directed with such clarity, they would be a lot less daunting.
Physically, Richard is a messiah figure with long, flowing hair, white robes and often bare feet. David Tennant, however, has an intense, penetrating stare and an imperious, high-handed manner of speaking suggesting Richard is comfortable regarding himself as above other people. It is only when humbled, Tennant can draw out some humanity with surprising bursts of humour mocking those who have led to his downfall.
The Henry IV plays are often staged as a series of comparisons. A natural but indifferent father is balanced against a warm, roguish substitute and a dynamic charismatic potential ruler offset against an apparently lewd wastrel. These versions are more subtle with a mood of decline and, if not tragedy, then rueful regret. Antony Sher plays the larger than life Falstaff not as a great theatrical role but rather a fragile human being. Instead of a boisterous drunk—the embodiment of the life force—Sher is an increasingly frail alcoholic with trembling hands, limping with gout and needing help to stand up.
A striking feature is Prince Hal’s increasing disenchantment and anger with Falstaff’s antics; a sense the joke is not funny anymore which makes the cruel rejection of the fat knight at the conclusion of Henry IV seem inevitable. This approach carries forward into the final play, so by viewing the full cycle, audiences have the chance to see Hal mature into Henry V—from a callow youth to a true leader. Nowadays, no director would stage Henry V as anything but an anti-war play, but Doran finds surprising humour in the grim setting and reminds the audience throughout of the power of theatre.
The Henry IV plays show the pros and cons of transmitting live theatre on screen. The broad humour and some of the performances seem a bit ‘shouty’. However, the intimate close-ups bring out the emotional cost of Hal’s maturation into Henry V. When Hal rejects Falstaff, Alex Hassell (as Hal / Henry) cannot look Antony Sher in the eye.
Watching the tetralogy evokes fond memories of the multi-part epic theatre productions that were all the rage a couple of decades ago. These productions defied the odds as they required a massive commitment on the part of both the companies and the audience. Budgets and rehearsal time rose, and patrons had to commit to attending a couple of nights or a full day at weekends.
They were risky ventures. By the time the RSC got around to touring their eight-hour version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, audience interest had dimmed and attendance in Manchester was low. This was particularly embarrassing as the play begins with the cast strolling through the theatre and chatting with the audience. The topic of conversation tended to be “Where the heck is everyone?”.
The multi-part format suggests large-scale and epic but that is not always the case. Regional theatres also took part with Manchester’s Royal Exchange staging a two-part version of The Prisoner of Zenda which overcame the considerable handicap of the lead actor being injured and having to postpone performances.
English Touring Theatre staged an intimate version of Shakespeare’s two-part Henry plays with the dream team of father-son Timothy and Samuel West as, respectively, Falstaff and Hal. The intimacy spilled off the stage. The programme included a discount voucher for a nearby pizza restaurant, so inevitably the audience all ran there during the break between the shows and found the cast had the same idea. Recall actors politely accepting compliments while explaining they really had to get back to the theatre or there would not be a second part.
The much-missed English Shakespeare Company were masters at staging epics on a budget and made the audience feel an essential part of their highly-political and provocative versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. Having initially staged both parts of Henry IV and Henry V in a triple bill, the company repeated them the next year bookended by Richard II, Henry VI (mercifully trimmed from three parts to two) and Richard III. Staged in the aftermath of the Falklands war, the plays were a striking condemnation of jingoism with the army leaving for war like a group of hooligans chanting football slogans. By the time the full cycle concluded, it really felt like the audience had taken part in something special. Perhaps the closest we have seen in recent years is Rona Munro’s The James Plays.
One day, the health crisis will end, and one hopes theatres will respond with plays that have a suitable scale and gravity to reflect the event. The Manchester International Festival has already stated the crisis will be reflected in its programme for 2021. This raises the worrying possibility that audiences and theatre companies who have already suffered through a traumatic experience may have to endure a video of Yoko Ono telling them to ring bells and hug clouds to offset the virus.
We really need something of greater significance. The ideal play would be Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America which has suitable ambition, gravity and, dealing with the AIDS epidemic, could be said to be topical. It is also bloody brilliant. Recall stumbling wide-eyed and breathless out of the Contact Theatre, where the National Theatre’s production was staged, to find the streets covered by an unexpected fall of snow. The undisturbed snow set an unworldly vibe that perfectly matched my whirling state of mind.
By the time lockdown is lifted, audiences will be so starved of live entertainment any kind of theatre will be welcome. However, a long-form epic show would be a great way of welcoming back an old friend.