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Sublime Shakespeare History Plays from the RSC

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Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in “Henry IV.” | RICHARD TERMINE
Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in “Henry IV.” | RICHARD TERMINE

Let’s get this out of the way first: if you have tickets for any of the four Shakespeare history plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater through May 1, count yourselves among the happy few. At 62, I’ve seen most of these plays multiple times but never so deep, rich, and arresting as here from the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of artistic director Gregory Doran.

We in New York are reaping the benefit of this particular ensemble doing these plays around the world for more than two years now. They live the texts, internalize the lines, and make these poetic slices of medieval life come alive as never before. And while most every member of the extremely fine ensemble richly embodies multiple significant characters both high and low, the stars shine brightly: David Tennant as an effete yet compelling Richard II, Jasper Britton as a fearsome yet nuanced Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), Antony Sher as a hilarious and poignant Falstaff, and Alex Hassell as a sexy Prince Hal –– who goes on to provide a unique take on Henry V not years but moments after his rebellious youth. Add to that Matthew Needham as the most ferocious Harry Percy aka Hotspur ever and you have dramas that you can’t take your eyes off of.

Good Shakespeare is all about conveying the poetry not just clearly, but so effortlessly and dramatically that we forget not only that we are listening to Elizabethan-era verse but that we are watching a play at all. Five stars to this company for breaking time, a rare achievement in any kind of theatrical experience. Whereas most Shakespeare demands concentration, these performances –– whether in scenes magisterial, violent, or comic –– commanded it, wringing us out with the complexity of the ideas and stories on parade.

British ensemble conquers Brooklyn after two years touring

Given the modern concern with not upsetting audiences or students too much, I’m surprised these plays don’t come with multiple “trigger warnings.” We are confronted not just with the explicit violence of murder, executions, and war as the way to settle things, but multitudinous expressions of sexism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia. Stereotypes abound, saved by the skill of these players in conveying the humanity of their characters.

Tennant’s ethereal and obnoxious Richard is a bit of a “fag” joke, but also a bold portrayal of a homosexual man with a penchant for kissing males he loves and loathes full on the mouth. You can’t take your eyes off him and never quite know what he is going to do next.

Sher’s brilliant Falstaff in the Henry IV plays is one long fat joke –– but so much more as when he delivers his thoughtful and moving soliloquy on the emptiness of “honor.” And he is just one of many of the comic characters who show us more about human nature than any royal can.

Britton’s bold Henry IV, opening Part I beneath a massive crucifix on Stephen Brimson Lewis’ brooding set, commands the stage and grabs onto his “divine” right –– shaking off his doubts about coming to the throne through usurpation only to return to them at the end of Part II.

Needham’s Hostspur seems like an unhinged gaybasher when he is railing against Henry IV and his court, yet tenderly recalls the deposed and dead Richard as “that sweet, lovely rose.”

Whereas “Henry V” was used by Shakespeare to shore up support for an Elizabethan military incursion into Ireland and Larry Olivier made it into a movie during World War II to rally troops, this version is heavy on the vagaries, dark humor, and injustices of war. Hassell is a delightfully dissolute Prince Hal and a fine Henry V, but do not expect to be stirred by his famous speeches during his war-of-choice with France. The martial obsessions of the king are balanced with the weariness and sheer desire to survive of the conscripts.

So much to ponder in these magnificent productions on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. His intelligence and craft speak across the centuries not just to our modern political messes, but to the conflicts within our very souls.

KING AND COUNTRY: SHAKESPEARE’S GREAT CYCLE OF KINGS | “Richard II,” “Henry IV Part I,” “Henry IV Part II,” “Henry V” | Royal Shakespeare Company | BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., btwn. Rockwell & Ashland Pl. | Through May 1 | $30-$200; bam.org, but for many shows, you must call 718-636-4100 | Four plays: 12 hrs. total

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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