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'King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings: EW stage review

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Stephanie Berger

There’s currently much ado about David Tennant — of Doctor Who, Broadchurch, and, most recently, Jessica Jones fame — playing preening, pretentious Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And for good reason: Tennant, who’s also done, among other roles, Hamlet for the RSC, is a natural as the unnatural king. (Plus: rendering Richard as a Christ-like figure — The white robe! The 12 apostle-like subjects, every one a Judas! The platform that carries him heavenward after his death! — evokes an unexpected strain of sympathy.)

There’s also a great fuss, and rightly so, over eminent British actor Antony Sher — who’s tackled such stern Shakespearean figures as Shylock, Richard III, and Prospero — transforming into the ultimate clown, Falstaff, in the RSC’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. Not surprisingly, Sher’s Falstaff is perhaps the most tragic you’ve ever seen — a drunk whose jokes and barbs mask an incurable emptiness. He provides ample comic relief, as expected, but his Falstaff is no mere (fat) joke.

However, perhaps the best draw of the RSC’s “King and Country” cycle at BAM — aside from Gregory Doran’s productions themselves, a spectacular rendering of Shakespeare’s best history plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) — is an actor named Alex Hassell, who stars as the wayward, ne’er-do-well prince in Henry IV and an unexpectedly strong king in Henry V. If you’re treating yourself to one of the RSC plays, Henry V is the one to see.

That said, if you have 12 hours to spare, you won’t regret it one bit: The chief pleasure of seeing the four plays is watching the rise of Henry V — arguably Shakespeare’s smartest, and most selfless, king: first, as Prince Hal, aka Harry, a callow, purse-picking youth who spends more time swilling sack with Falstaff than he does with his in-distress dad, King Henry IV (Jasper Britton), at court; then, as a valiant swordsman, taking on — and taking down — the aptly named Hotspur (Matthew Needham) to protect the crown; then, coming to terms with his dying father and ascending to the throne; and eventually, conquering France and becoming the king his father never was… or surely ever dreamed his eldest son could be.

In Henry V alone, once you watch him motivating his troops in a tear-inducing “band of brothers” speech and win the heart of Princess Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) — she speaks little English, his French is comically bad — you’ll be ready to follow “this star of England” just about anywhere. And then the Chorus (the affable Oliver Ford Davies) bursts your bubble and tells you that the future Henry VI will pretty much destroy everything his dad just built (Henry VI’s reign was so tumultuous Shakespeare needed three plays to cover it all).

But that’s a story for another time — and for another tetralogy. With any luck, the RSC will cross the Atlantic again and pick up where these four plays leave off: with an infant on the throne and the Wars of the Roses looming.

Richard II: A–; Henry IV, Part 1: A–; Henry IV, Part 2: B+; Henry V: A