Review: BREATH OF KINGS: Rebellion and Redemption

by Lynn on September 1, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Anonymous-CrownAt the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directed by Weyni Mengesha (Rebellion-Henry II and Henry IV Part 1)
and Mitchell Cushman (Redemption –Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V)
Set by Anahita Dehbonehie
Costumes by Yannick Larivée
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Composer and sound designer, Debashis Sinha
Cast: Graham Abbey
Wayne Best
Shane Carty
Mikaela Davies
Michelle Giroux
Sebastien Heins
Kate Hennig
Randy Hughson
Araya Mengesha
Gordon S. Miller
Irene Poole
Tom Rooney
Anusree Roy
Stephen Russell
Johnathan Sousa
Carly Street
Nigel Shawn Williams
Geraint Wyn Davies

A mammoth effort to make two plays by condensing Richard II and Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. The cast for the most part was up for the challenge. The directorial results were mixed.

The Stories. Actor/director adaptor Graham Abbey has taken Shakepeare’s plays Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V and adapted them intotwo parts: Breath of Kings Rebellion and Breath of Kings Redemption. It is a distillation of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV Part 1) From the program note to make things simple: “The mysterious murder of King Richard II’s uncle, a known adversary of the King’s, prompts Richard’s cousin Henry Hereford, known as Bolingbroke, to accuse Thomas Mowbray of treason. When the two refuse to be reconciled, Richard banishes them both. Soon after, when Bolingbroke’;s powerful father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance. This provokes Bolingbroke to armed rebellion against Richard’s crown, his political pragmatism posing a serious challenge to the ubiquitously held faith in the divine right of kings. Meanwhile, Bolingbroke grows uneasy about the conduct of his “unthrifty son” Hal, whose time is spent tavern-haunting with such dissolute companions as the corpulent and colourful Sir John Falstaff. Hal assures his father, however, that he will soon reveal his true worth as a prince and help crush the rebellion—a promise he fulfills in battle at Shrewsbury, where he kills Hotspur in single combat. Hotspur’s death marks the rebels’ defeat in the battle, though not before King Henry is wounded.”

Redemption: (Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V). “When Redemption begins, Henry remains concerned about Hal’s association with Falstaff-who played an inglorious part at Shrewsbury, falsely trying to take credit for Hotspur’s death. To make matters worse, the king’s wound has festered into disease, and his kingdom has become increasingly fractured by the previously pardoned Archbishop of York. “

So lots of intrigue, political manoeuvrings, diplomatic wrangling and deep down, family stories of stubborn fathers and wayward sons.

Productions. Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha split the directorial duties. Cushman directed Redemption and Mengesha directed Rebellion. After seeing both parts it’s obvious both directors discussed the whole sweep of the plays to present as cohesive a showing as possible for the two parts. They both use Anahita Dehbonehie’s raised set and Yannik Larivée’s costume design. And the same group of actors act in both parts.

Weyni Mengesha is very clear in her interpretation of Rebellion. She has a nice use of the space that is spare. There is a point in which a character or two lifts a portion of the stage up and puts it aside. This only happens twice in Rebellion.

Mitchell Cushman is also clear in his interpretation of Redemption but has a penchant for the flashy image that Mengesha does not. This is not a criticism of her.

His positioning of a group of archers when Henry V is getting ready to fight the French is masterful in making us imagine arrows being shot into the air and into the enemy.

For some reason he has characters remove several hunks of the set, (carrying on the idea from Rebellion) suggesting the stage is a huge jig-saw puzzle. By the end of the play there are so many hunks of set strewn unevenly around the stage, you are taken out of the play and wonder how the actor will actually negotiation the rocky terrain without injury. At the bow actors have to gingerly walk around the pieces so as not to knock into them.

I think that’s taking an idea too far. One wonders what is the point of all that clutter?

You get the sense of politics and kingship from both parts because we see the sitting Kings at the time and how they rule; how diplomacy and clear thinking is important

In Rebellion Richard II, as played by the masterful Tom Rooney, is calm and ruthless in making his decisions. He is always thinking and his decisions are quickly made and final. He brooks no opposition and if he gets it he explodes. After all that tempered calmness that explosion is startling. You get the sense of how matters can turn on a dime if a wrong decision is made.

In Redemption Henry IV as played by the courtly Graham Abbey, is a mature man wanting his young hot-headed son Prince Hal to be responsible. Hal just wants to have fun. But you see how he develops into King Henry V.

Araya Mengesha plays Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V. Mengesha has that youthful arrogance. He does speak the lines with a sense of the poetry, but at this point he lacks the courtliness to convince that he is to the manor born, that he is of royal blood.

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Sir John Falstaff, corpulent and a man of many bulges. Wyn Davies plays Falstaff with joyful self-absorption, pomposity, low-down wit and dazzle that is nothing short of mesmerizing.

There is a lot of gender bending casting—mainly women playing all manner of men, both lowly and aristocratic, which is interesting. Rather than being challenging to imagine Kate Hennig as the Bishop of Carlisle or Anusree Roy as Sir John Bushy for example in Rebellion, or Irene Poole as Lord Chief Justice in Redemption, it’s not at all challenging. They are compelling actors playing a role. You suspend your disbelief and believe they are playing those roles. The acting is strong and the exercise is so intriguing you give over to the adventure.

Comment. Concerns aside, Graham Abbey has pulled off a Herculean challenge by creating these bracing productions of Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Breath of Kings: Redemption. And Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman have created two productions that are compelling theatre. Bravo to Graham Abbey and the company who pulled off this tremendous effort.

Presented by the Stratford Festival

Opened: June 22, 2016.
Closes: September 24, 2016.
Cast: 18; 12 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 3 hours each, approx.

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