Internet Shakespeare Editions


Stratford's Breath of Kings Rallies Forces through Redemption

by Jim Volz. Written on 2016-08-23. Published in 2017 Issue 1.

For the production Breath of Kings: Redemption (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)

Shakespeare始s Henry the Fourth, Part 2 is always a bit of a drudge lacking both the humor, blood, and guts passion of Henry the Fourth, Part 1. Still, Canada始s Stratford Festival plunged into Graham Abbey始s adaptation titled Breath of Kings: Redemption and offered a palatable Henry the Fourth, Part 2 followed by a palpable Henry the Fifth.

In their “The Head that Wears a Crown” directors始 notes, Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman offered striking reasons for tackling the two Henrys at this particular time: “What compels someone to seek a throne (be it situated inside a castle, an Oval Office, or a boardroom), and what should we demand from those who sit upon them? …. Today, it is impossible to contemplate Richard, Henry, and Hal without considering Trudeau and Obama, Trump, Clinton and Sanders, Putin and Merkel, and Gaddafi, and Mubarak, and the Koch brothers ….”

For the politically astute, the parallels were uncanny. Abbey as King Henry the Fourth, Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal, and the rest of the Royal Family were rightfully wary of the rebels始 power in the guise of the Archbishop of York and Lady Percy (both played by an agile Carly Street), Young Mowbray (Mikaela Davies), Lord Hasting (Anusree Roy), the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams), and Lady Northumberland (Irene Poole). The somber play certainly challenged the audience to consider the consequences of ambition, suspicion, revenge, and deadly politics, and although Falstaff始s bravado (admirably rendered by Geraint Wyn Davies) provided temporary relief, his eventual humiliation was made bearable only in contrast to the redemption and future promise of King Henry the Fifth.

As Prince Hal/Henry the Fifth, Mengesha came into his own as he ascended the throne and Breath of Kings: Redemption transitioned from Shakespeare始s Henry the Fourth, Part 2 into Shakespeare始s Henry the Fifth. Fortunately, both the pace and the action picked up in the second half of this adaptation as King Charles the Sixth of France (Wayne Best), Queen Isabel (Roy), The Dauphin (Davies), the Duke of Orleans (Shane Carty), and the rest of the French contingent offered enough bluster and bravado to resurrect audience interest and plunge the players into battle.

The Battle of Agincourt was creatively staged in the round (unusual for Stratford始s Tom Patterson Theater), and the directing, design, and fight team始s ingenuity rivalled that of the outnumbered English and the miraculous defeat of the overconfident French. Anahita Dehbonehie始s set design provided myriad battle formations as pieces of the stage were pried up from the floor and used as shelter or vantage points. Yannik Lariv茅e始s costume design ranged from odd to ingenious to helpful as the audience sorted out the many doublings of actors, the women playing men始s roles, and the back and forth appearances of the Royal Family, English officers, and French nobility and soldiers. Kimberly Purtell始s intricate lighting design and Debashis Sinha始s dynamic work as a composer and sound designer were crucial to clarifying each army始s strategic plans, advances, engagements, and triumphs. Fight Director John Stead and Movement Director Brad Cook deserved special mention for the complex, polished, and provocative choreography and battle scenes.

Breath of Kings, Rebellion and Redemption,
represented a wildly ambitious undertaking and commitment by Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, and company. Although some scenes proved long and challenging, Breath of Kings was definitely more than the sum of its parts, and the experience of those four Shakespeare plays over two productions and six hours was more than worth it for the bravest of the Bard始s followers and a rare, rich experience for both audience and company members alike.