Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey from William Shakespeare
Directed by Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, to September 24, 2016
This four-hour-plus, cross-racial, cross-gender adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s Histories (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V) squeezes some of the greatest tetralogies into a theatrical Osterizer, and the result is a sloppy mess. Not only is there little or no sense of English history on view, there is little that is correctly in a major Shakespearean key—apart from three central performances that, although not by any means definitive, hold an audience’s unwavering attention and provide a modest amount of colour and power. There is no other playwright I can think of who so successfully combines various layers of a huge national society and their precise locales as Shakespeare does. His unparalleled eye takes in tavern and tower, battlefield and throne room, church and boudoir, Welsh, Irish, and Scots, ostlers, gardeners, highwaymen, prostitutes, minor nobility and kings themselves. His History plays are not mere chronicles of rebellions, battles, conquests, truces, and redemption. They are domestic dramas (about husbands and wives and lovers, sons and fathers, mothers and sons) circumscribed by a national and international macrocosm. But, alas, this production gives no sense of a real family, and certainly not of an English royal one. Probably because of its directors’ concerted efforts to universalize or globalize Shakespeare—to make some sort of commentary on the state of our world today in the Mid-East and the West—its Hal (later King Henry V) is Araya Mengesha, who never looks anything other than callow and out of place, and who sounds even worse for most of the time, except much later in his wooing of the French princess, once he has abandoned his roisterous ways and redeemed himself to his ailing father. Nepotism (on Weyni Mengesha’s part) may have been the reason for this miscasting, but the cost is huge to the production. The Duchess of York (Anusree Roy) bears traces of an East Indian accent, while (on the side of the rebels) the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams) looks, moves, and acts like a drop-out from the WWF.
There is hardly a point to mention the cross-gender casting except to point out that, by and large, it is a hapless failure, though Michelle Giroux delivers Montjoy’s message well and Carly Street is convincingly fierce as a warrior or earl. I saw no radical reinterpretation of male roles by the female players, so the experiment remains a nugatory one. The actresses in question are far better in the roles true to their natural gender: Giroux making a nice Queen for her Richard II, Street a lovely Lady Percy. Elsewhere, Irene Poole is a fine Alice to Mikaela Davies’s Katherine in the wooing scene of Henry V, and, best of all, Kate Hennig is colourfully vulgar as Mistress Quickly.
The two-part production performs some major surgery on the Shakespearean sources, telescoping much of the plots, sometimes blending one play into another, adding lines from a fifth unmentioned play, omitting details, but somehow managing to advance the illusion of psychological and historical progression as many in the 19-member company play multiple roles. It begins with Richard II, where Tom Rooney (one of the most original Canadian Shakespeareans) turns the snow-king into a cerebral wit, self-consciously ironic, delighting in his scornful mental agility against Bolingbroke as he surrenders the crown to the usurper, daring him to seize what should not be his. At other times, this weak monarch sounds almost bored with the arch rebels, saving his greatest interest for exquisitely timed insults and pensive reflections. The only things lacking in the portrait are glamour and sexual ambiguity.
Graham Abbey manages to make Bolingbroke fiery before he turns into Henry IV, a man ravaged by guilt at his usurpation of the crown and then by shame at the follies of his delinquent son, Hal. But the actor could benefit from suggesting more grandeur and a little more variety in his speech. However, his is one of the three outstanding performances, the last and the greatest being Geraint Wyn Davies’s Falstaff, all padded to be a walking pudding, bed-breaker, and ingratiating rogue, larding the lean earth he strides, richly savoring the language and delighting in his own sometimes sinister cunning. Davies is also authentically Welsh as Fluellen, one of the three roles he essays, the third being an old gardener in Richard II. But it is his Falstaff that will live longer than almost any other stage role he has yet played. He is not simply a ton of bulk but a knowingly pompous lord, chuckling at himself, enjoying his influence on Hal, yet crumbling in almost silent heartbreak when later rejected by the boy turned dismissive monarch.
The other roles are played without much distinction, though Rooney turns Shallow into an inebriated fan of Falstaff, wryly amusing but missing the sense of something very autumnal and rural. Wayne Best registers dignity as a noble and at least speaks with clarity and conviction—which certainly is not true of Jonathan Sousa’s over-parted Hotspur who looks and sounds like a raw-boned thug, something made all the more prominent by the weird mixed period costuming by Yannick Larivee who makes Henry V look like a doorman or valet in some of the battle scenes rather than a rousing star of England.
I exempt the always skilful lighting designer Kimberly Purtell from censure, as well as set designer Anahita Dehbonehie who covers a pale grey stone floor (almost literally in the round) with what looks like flaky soil but which is actually shaved rubber dyed black, red, and brown. This earth, while no demi-paradise, allows interesting patterns to be made by feet, swords, and furniture, just as the stone floor breaks open for the battle scenes and forms irregular, jagged shapes to mark the anarchy which results once rebellion shatters the great chain of being.