Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Breath of Kings: Redemption, Stratford Festival, Dir. Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman, Assoc. Dir. Graham Abbey, at Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, Canada. June 22, 2016
Reviewed by Regina Buccola
Within a three-month span this summer I will have seen the first part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s epic march through six history plays, Tug of War; the Stratford Festival’s six-hour slog through the first four linked history plays chronologically, Breath of Kings; and Muse of Fire’s redux of the other four linked history plays treating the Wars of the Roses, Margaret. All three of these productions are world premieres. Two-thirds of the way through my summer stint as a history marathoner, I can report that the mirror held up to our society by these productions’ kings is cracked and tarnished, the image they reflect back to us a grim one. I join the chorus of reviewers who have found that the first half of Breath of Kings, Rebellion, offers more compelling plot and staging than the second half, Redemption, but Redemption does offer fine performances, chiefly those of Araya Mengesha, Geraint Wyn Davies, and the chameleon-like Carly Street.
Both Barbara Gaines’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire in Chicago and Graham Abbey’s Breath of Kings in Stratford emphasize the cyclical nature of history in varied ways, using production motifs to underscore the maddening tendency of history to repeat itself, often with disastrous consequences. Both productions relied on stylized allusions to medieval attire with elements that invoked contemporary sartorial and political sensibilities. Both also staged their political machinations and military carnage in theatre spaces that allowed an in-your-face interaction with the audience, implicating us in the stage action in ways that went well beyond our shared time commitment with the cast.
For the first time, the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford has been arranged fully in the “round,” the audience on tiered seating on all four sides of the rectangular auditorium in a re-purposed community center that still shares space with the local Kiwanis Club. A platform stage raised only a long step up from floor level put the actors in the center of the audience. As the afternoon matinee audience for Rebellion assembled, the stage was covered in a thick layer of mulch. Both Rebellion and Redemption commenced with silent prologue scenes focused on death: for Rebellion, Richard II (Tom Rooney) processed solemnly, accompanied by a hooded priest, before being stripped of his royal robe and plunged into a bath opened in a trap in the stage floor. As Richard underwent a ritual cleansing at the lobby entrance end of the oblong stage, the Duke of Gloucester (Wayne Best) was murdered at the opposite end of the stage.
Herein lies one of the difficulties of marathon – and, necessarily, heavily edited – approaches to the history plays. Unless one arrived at the theatre intimately familiar with the conflict that subsequently erupts between Bolingbroke (Graham Abbey) and Mowbray (Carly Street) over Gloucester’s murder, this opening montage’s relationship to the play’s plot was not entirely clear. Moreover, it was not entirely clear what the paired stage moments were meant to suggest to the audience. Was Richard being ritually cleansed because he was implicated in Gloucester’s murder? Did the murder itself constitute a kind of cleansing – good riddance to a bad uncle? In any case, the cleansing ritual didn’t work: the murder, and its attendant conflicts, stick to Richard like the mulch that stuck to his wet legs when he exited the bath.
The confrontation between Mowbray and Bolingbroke in Richard’s presence conflated into a single scene a conflict that unfolds over the course of the first act in the text of the play. The gage-throwing challenge between the two did not lead to a joust which Richard interrupted. Rather, in Abbey’s adaptation, Richard took the impetuous course of banishing Mowbray and Bolingbroke as soon as they issued challenges to one another. In a condensation of the play text that emphasized Richard’s fickle he then equally abruptly chose to forgive four of the ten years of Bolingbroke’s banishment, prompting Bolingbroke to marvel at royal prerogative and power, delivering the line that gives the adaptation its title: “such is the breath of kings.”
The political treachery and betrayal conveyed in Rebellion’s opening moments repeat on a continuous loop over the course of all four of the plays in the adaptation: Richard II, parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV, and Henry V. The crown became a synecdoche for this repetitive cycle, with repeated stage moments in which its golden round was held by two people on opposite sides of it, literally and figuratively. The first of these moments was, of course, Richard’s deposition scene, where the play text itself calls for Bolingbroke to physically take the crown from him as a visual marker of the act of deposition.
Beset by the same superfluity of family members with royal blood coursing through their veins and ambition in their hearts that plagued Richard, Henry IV has an additional problem: the intransigence and court absenteeism of his eldest son and the heir apparent, Prince Hal (Araya Mengesha, cousin of director Weyni Mengesha). In the tavern world – for which lighting designer Kimberly Purtell turned up the wattage, dispelling the grim darkness of the court – the superb Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff knowingly winked and chuckled aside to the audience, initially assured of his role as madcap mentor to Hal. After the summons to court that prompts Falstaff to urge Hal to “practice an answer” to his irate father, the two took turns holding their state with an empty wooden bowl for the crown. As Hal “deposed” Falstaff to speak more like his royal father, the two briefly faced off on opposite sides of the wooden O of the bowl/crown. This father/son, king/prince imagery was echoed in Hal’s audience with his father later that evening in Redemption, when the prodigal son comes to his father’s deathbed in part 2 of Henry IV, and prematurely takes the crown. When Hal contritely returned it, father and son held it on opposing sides, across the sickbed that would soon momentously become Henry’s death bed.
Hal promises a transformation in part 1 of Henry IV that was rendered literal in the production following his father’s death in two ways. First, Mengesha’s performance as Hal had a casual, tossed-off quality that lead some audience members to assess the performer himself as green. I guessed – correctly, it seems – that this was direction, to distinguish Prince Hal from King Henry V. Second, as the first performer of color to play an English king on the stage at Stratford, Mengesha wore his hair natural, in short dreadlocks, as Prince. Following his father’s death, he sat on stage while his hair was plaited into neat, scalp-contouring rows. Mengesha was a different person as Henry V, in terms of his performance style and his physical appearance. The deliberate onstage nature of this transformation was very effective, particularly given the challenge of performing this metamorphosis over the course of a single day for audience members (like me and many of those who attended Breath of Kings) who saw both halves of the adaptation in the same day.
Anahita Dehbonehie’s stage design for Rebellion was dark and earthy. A study in contrasts, the stage design for Redemption was bright and austere. The floor appeared to be made of pale marble. In the silent opening montage for Redemption, Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams), accompanied by Lady Northumberland (Irene Poole) and Lady Percy (the versatile Carly Street), removed a block of the marble floor with grunting effort, and then reached in to sift soil through his fingers, from what was meant to be Hotspur’s grave. The marble block that he removed had red splatters across the bottom, suggesting blood.
Over the course of Redemption, more and more of these blocks were removed from the floor, creating a hazardous obstacle course for the actors consisting of both open traps in the floor, and large faux marble blocks heaped on stage. Many of the lines about the mines exchanged by Captain Gower (Kate Henning) and Fluellen (a repurposed Geraint Wyn Davies) were cut, but large explosions followed by the removal of more blocks of the floor signified them to the audience. In a puzzling move for a show labeled “Redemption,” the destroyed stage space remained for the final scene of courtship between Henry V and Princess Katherine (Mikaela Davies).
Davies doubled the roles of the Dauphin and Princess Katherine; in a neat transition, the King of France (Wayne Best) ordered the Dauphin to remain in the French court (though, in a mélange of the quarto and Folio texts, he did subsequently appear in battle). After the King swept offstage, Davies unzipped a crested breastplate and pulled out two strips of fabric to create an ankle-length, straight skirt for her English lesson as the Princess Katherine. The scene with the King and the Dauphin had included a burlap-covered mannequin torso mounted on a pole on a wheeled base, stuck through with arrows (an ominous foreshadowing of one of the ways in which the English force secured its victory at Agincourt). Katherine used this arrow-studded, archery-practice mannequin in her French lesson. While certainly foreboding, this stand-out choice of prop in a production remarkably free of them paradoxically coded the conquered body as a male, soldier’s body, rather than the geographical, feminized body of La France, and of Katherine herself, Henry’s “principal demand” in the peace negotiations following the English military conquest.
Henry has already effectively won both France and Katherine in battle before the final scene. However, the stage remained in its state of battlefield disarray for Henry’s courtship of Katherine. The destroyed stage constituted a visceral reminder of the vicious battle that had been required to bring the two rival kings to peace negotiations, but also suggested that the courtship of Katherine was another battle that Henry had to fight. In a final echo of the stage moment in which kings faced off across the crown with future kings (or presumptuous hangers-on, in the case of Falstaff), Henry offered half of the crown to Katherine as he wooed her, the two of them grasping it on opposite sides, looking into one another’s eyes, as he promised her an equal share in himself, and in England, if she agreed to give him herself, and France.
The Epilogue to Henry V, delivered by the Chorus, Tom Rooney, reinforced the idea that the peace between England and France would be precarious, and short-lived, both in what the Epilogue reports, in terms of historical fact, and in the context: the actor who had played the king at the outset of this two-part journey (Richard II) was now offering the negative assessment of how pointless all of this battle would turn out to be, when Henry VI not only lost all of the territory his father had gained in France, but then lost England itself to civil war. In what sense, then, can the second half of this historical sweep be called “Redemption”? It seems to have a local reference, since it is Hal who promises to “redeem” all of his past misdeeds on Hotspur’s head. The title itself points to an issue with the production as a whole: the first half, Rebellion, has an epic sweep befitting a mini-marathon through English history. Most of the characters in Richard II and part 1 of Henry IV are engaged in various acts of rebellion. Redemption, however, seems to put the entire burden of the second half on Hal/Henry V. Mengesha proved to be up to the task of shouldering the weight, but, as a sub-heading, Redemption did not seem to fit the grim production that we saw, with the victor king left to navigate the remains of his own battlefield to court his princess spoils, and the actor who had played the king who pushed over the first dominos to fall in the two-part show the foreboding voice of the failure of the Lancastrian line to preserve its hard-won titles. In the end, in Graham Abbey’s adaptation, the power of the breath of kings proves no more substantive than air.