Friday, 1 July 2016

Rebellion and Redemption offer uniquely entertaining theatre

A Breath of Kings Rebellion
Richard 11 and Henry 1V, Part 1
A Breath of Kings Redemption
Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V
Stratford Festival 2016
Tom Patterson Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directed by Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha
Approximate running time: Three hours for each production (with two intervals of 20 minutes each)
June 22-September 24
Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600

Reviewed by Geoff Dale

STRATFORD – With Macbeth a critical and popular success Graham Abbey has treated audiences to another exhilarating Shakespearean experience with his powerful, thought-provoking A Breath of Kings Rebellion and Breath of Kings Redemption.

With Rebellion he incorporates the major elements of Richard 11 and Henry IV, Part One. Meanwhile, Redemption ambitiously presents the key aspects of Henry IVPart Two and Henry V. The resulting two three-hour productions utilize the considerable skills of 20+ actors tackling 70+ roles – a truly daunting task.

Graham Abbey is pictured as King Henry 1V in A Breath of Kings Rebellion. (David Hou Photography)

At the risk of sounding a tad coy, A Breath of Kings, both parts, are breathtaking for the most part. Admittedly the required editing and cutting of portions of the original text does translate into some loss of scenes and even character developments. Yet despite this, what is showcased is an exquisite, sometimes sweeping narrative that highlights the finest stage talents to be found anywhere. Continuity never suffers.

In addition to Abbey’s vision is the bonus of the skillful team of co-directors Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha, whose staging abilities are highlighted magnificently in the Tom Patterson Theatre’s audience- friendly in-the-round scenario.

As in past efforts Tom Rooney demonstrates yet again why he is acknowledged as both a dramatic and comic actor with unmatched skills. His Richard 11, not the standard view, is a deep inner exploration of a tormented regal authority, beset with the woes of uniting and/or dividing his moments of enlightened rule with self-obsessed indulgence.

Returning in Redemption he lightens the proceedings with his wondrous portrayal of foolish buddy of Falstaff’s Justice Shallow while providing yet another more serious role – dressed in the tattered garb of the deceased Richard – the narratively essential Chorus.

Geraint Wyn Davies offers up a first-rate acting class, stealing scene after scene with his over-the-top comic buffoon Sir John Falstaff and latterly with his awe-inspiring presentation of the stalwart Welsh officer Captain Fluellen.

Araya Mengesha as King Henry V with members of the company in A Breath of Kings Redemption.
 (David Hou Photography)

Araya Mengesha is solid as the youthful undisciplined prince Hal who grows steadily into the more regal Henry V who exceeds expectations as the newly crowned serious-minded king.

While the productions call on the full company to tackle a seemingly exhaustive variety of roles, special note should be made of the contributions of six gifted female actors who take on both male and female roles, a novel but highly successful gender neutral approach to the two plays.

Irene Poole is a standout on all counts but particularly shines as the King’s loyal supporter Sir Walter Blunt. Carly Street, tackling multiple characters with ease, is a rousing delight as the militant ready-for-action at any costs Scottish Earl of Douglas and Kate Henning is a delightful Mistress Quickly, the welcoming hostess of the Boor’s Head.

Remarkably Abbey hasn’t worn himself too thin with his writing, directorial and conceptual duties, strutting about as a finely etched Henry Bolingbroke, King Henry 1V – a remarkable achievement for the talented actor, proving that one can indeed wear many diverse theatrical hats with great aplomb.

Other highlights including stirring battles staged and choreographed by John Stead; the cold steel duel between Hal and Hotspur; the stunning costuming by Yannik Larivee; the mesmerizing oft-times bleak and dark lighting courtesy of Kimberly Purtell and Anita Dehbonehie’s eye-catching set design.

The good news is neither purists nor theatre novices should feel obligated to furiously re-read the aforementioned Shakespearean’s works to appreciate Abbey’s efforts. Nor is there really any overriding necessity to seek out those missing scenes, characters and/or plots and subplots – few as they may be.

The verdict – six hours of enticing, often enthralling and dare we utter it yet again breathtaking theatre highlighting the versatility of innovative actor/director Abbey. Complemented by Stratford’s fine acting and technical companies the two productions richly deserve **** out of four stars. 

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