BWW Review: BREATH OF KINGS: REBELLION & REDEMPTION at the Stratford Festival

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This season at the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre, audiences have the opportunity to witness Shakespeare's Henriad in a unique and exciting new way. The four plays from this history cycle are all being presented in condensed form in two glorious productions. BREATH OF KINGS: REBELLION covers RICHARD II and HENRY IV PART 1 and then BREATH OF KINGS: REDEMPTION covers HENRY IV PART 2 and HENRY V. BREATH OF KINGS is conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey, who is also an Associate Director and who stars as Henry Bolingbroke/King Henry IV.

Although each production can stand alone, there is value in seeing them in order and watching the evolution of one kingdom into another...and then another. Each production has the same cast and most performers play several different roles. The actors are fluid shape shifters as they transform themselves from one role to the next-sometimes without even leaving the stage, and in several cases, women play male characters. Each half of each play has its own unique tone that represents the tone of each King's reign. That said, directors Weyni Mengeshi and Mitchell Cushman skillfully weave each story together in a way that the tone of Richard II slowly shifts into that of Henry IV Part 1 and then in the next production, the next two plays follow suit.

Three major strengths of each of these productions are the three kings that we, as an audience, become acquainted with. First, in REBELLION, as Richard II, Tom Rooney is fantastic as usual. The way he recites some of Shakespeare's most lyrical soliloquies, not only illuminates just how beautiful the language of the bard is, but it also immediately lets the audience in on exactly who King Richard II is-brilliant, self-important and and self-reflective, but less inclined to act. Rooney returns in other roles in REDEMPTION, including that of the hysterical and scene-stealing, Justice Shallow and as the Chorus. In addition to this, it should be noted that although he may not be quite as prominent as he was in REBELLION, audiences will still see his face frequently. I do not want to spoil the plot point, but I will say that it involves a very clever costuming choice.

As King Henry IV, Graham Abbey has the opportunity to portray him both at the beginning of his reign, when Richard II is deposed and he ascends to the throne, as well as at the end of his reign as he watches his young son grapple with the responsibility of taking his place. Through it all, Abbey's Henry IV is deeply burdened by the way in which he gained the throne. As we progress from the first half of REBELLION into the second, we see how the years of being seen as a counterfeit King by the rebels, have seeped into his pores. He has a much more serious tone, a desire to prove himself worthy and a desire for his son to be worthy too. The gravitas of all of this is constantly visible on Mr. Abbey's face.

As our third and final king in this history cycle, Araya Mengesha is phenomenal as King Henry V--known to the audience as Prince Hal or Harry during the second half of REBELLION and first half of REDEMPTION. His mischievous young Hal has a twinkle in his eye as he navigates his youth with a questionable array of companions, but as the weight of his responsibilities starts to become apparent, we see him mature before our very eyes and reach the same level of seriousness that we have seen in his father. One of the most poignant scenes is when Prince Hal and his father have a confrontation (due to a misunderstanding) at the King's deathbed. Raw emotion is displayed by both men, and although the moment is very much about a crown being passed from one king to another, it is even more so, an intimate moment between father and son.

Geraint Wyn Davies is delightful as Sir John Falstaff--a character with great charm, but questionable morals, who has become somewhat of a father figure to Prince Hal. Wyn Davies excels at highlighting all of Falstaff's comedic moments, while also giving him a beautiful depth, which allows for very moving moments--like his thoughtful soliloquy about the nature of "honour", and the powerfully sad moment in REDEMPTION when he realizes that his relationship with the new King is forever changed.

Set Designer, Anahita Dehbonehie has made excellent use of the stage in the round and has created three very distinct kingdoms. A key method used to visually demonstrate the fact that these plays occur over the span of three very different Kings' reigns, appears to be the surface of the stage itself. During Richard II's reign, the ground is covered in an earthy moss. As the end of his time as King grows nearer, props are moved about the stage, scraping away at the moss and revealing a cold-looking white surface underneath. Once Henry IV is King, the moss is nowhere to be seen and we are left with that pure white surface. In REDEMPTION, the ground starts out similarly to how it was at the end of REBELLION, but now with the white ground being comprised of puzzle-piece like blocks. As Henry V becomes King and strives to conquer France, there is a mass upheaval of these 'puzzle pieces' , created during battle scenes, and allowing for limited solid footing for The Players involved. What's more, beneath these disturbed puzzle pieces-which are cleverly used as barricades during battle-we see a hint of the moss from Act 1 of REBELLION. This perhaps symbolizes the cyclical nature of Kings and their Kingdoms, past and present. You know that a production is deeply rich when one can find meaning in everything, including the use of the floor! I found this to be very interesting.

Another strength of this production comes from the battle scenes. Fight Director, John Stead has created some epic and exciting battle scenes. Kimberly Purtell's lighting design and Debashis Sinha's compositions and sound design help to make these scenes gritty and scary. Three highlights in terms of fight scenes, include when the 'two Harrys'-Prince Hal and the brash young Hotspur (the brilliant Johnathan Sousa) face off; the fight between Irene Poole's Sir Walter Blunt and Carly Street's Earl of Douglas (with three swords between them); and the final battle scene near the end of REDEMPTION. It should be noted with regards to the sword fight between Walter Blunt and the Earl of Douglas, that I personally do not recall ever seeing such a fierce sword battle performed by two actresses on stage, and although they were portraying male characters, I found this to be very thrilling to watch. Hopefully this is something audiences will continue to get to see on the Stratford Festival stages.

Overall, both BREATH OF KINGS: REBELLION and BREATH OF KINGS: REDEMPTION are absolutely thrilling to watch. Although they are each self-contained, audiences should absolutely try to see them both, to see them in order. This is a fantastic way to present Shakespeare's Henriad and it must be an all-out marathon for the performers involved!

BREATH OF KINGS: REBELLION and BREATH OF KINGS: REDEMPTION continue in Repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24th.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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From This Author Lauren Gienow