LONDON: Theatre marquees are ablaze with enticing new offerings in the new year. Highlights of the season thus far include new plays by Tom Stoppard and David Hare, a jewel of a Jacobean play, a compelling collection of history plays and a controversial reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic.
At the Barbican, the Royal Shakespeare Company is offering the kind of traditional theatre experience one both expects and appreciates with its production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Gregory Doran’s staging is clear and stately; the company is skilled and agile; the language is spoken with elegance and precision. The classical music is live, the swordfights are flashy and the candlelit processions proceed with a flourish. It’s all pageant and ritual—the kind of show Anglophiles are eager to swim across the Atlantic to see.
With their combined length (more than six hours) and repetitive content, these Henrys may not be the most exciting of Shakespeare’s history plays. But they are kept alive here by a compelling human triangle at the plays’ heart: among King Henry, his son, Prince Hal, and Hal’s profligate mentor, Sir John Falstaff, who exerts a wayward influence over the young monarch-to-be. Falstaff is one of the great comic figures of the Shakespearean canon, a larger-than-life bon vivant, buffoon and rogue on the one hand, wit and a philosopher on the other. Antony Sher is delightful in the role.
Alex Hassell makes a tender Prince Hal, and Jasper Britton is a devoted King Henry who is trying to keep his son in line. There’s also the parallel story of the rivalry between Prince Hal and Hotspur (a charismatic Trevor White), set in the larger context of royal succession. In all, it’s a moving meditation on the ultimate duty of a young man to his father, his country and his tradition.
With that heavy weight of tradition in the air, just imagine the impact of a brand-new history play on the West End, written in Shakespearean style, yet set in the future! The title itself—King Charles III—is shocking. After all, Prince Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is very much alive and in the 63rd year of her reign. But in this audacious new work, playwright Mike Bartlett (Not Talking, Cock) imagines that the Queen has died and Charles is about to assume the throne. But the brave stand that Charles takes against Parliament in the days before his coronation sets in motion at plot to overthrow the future king that rivals Macbeth in its treachery and intrigue.
The thrill of King Charles III is manifold. On the one hand, it is undeniably Shakespearean in form and tragic in impact. Staged by Rupert Goold with the same RSC solemnity, pomp and circumstance as the Henrys, it features such familiar elements as blank verse, soliloquies, medieval music, even a ghost (Princess Diana’s). At some moments, its obeisance to the Bard borders on parody. On the other hand, it’s populated by all the familiar dramatis personae of today’s royal family: Charles, Camilla, Prince William, Kate Middleton (in a delicious Lady Macbeth–like role), Prince Harry (a wild child, much like Prince Hal), and so on. So the story plays almost like a modern-day monarchical thriller.
The similarities between King Charles III and Henry IV are striking. Both are father-son plays; both deal with the themes of loyalty, betrayal and adherence to tradition. Ultimately, Bartlett’s bold, brilliant play is a coup de théâtre, historic in stature and urgently contemporary in its expression of the zeitgeist. With the Queen approaching 90 and the question of succession hanging in the air (Prince William is evidently more popular than his father, Charles), the value of the monarchy itself is once again a hot topic in England. That lends this arresting production (which features Timothy Pigott-Smith as an affecting Charles) its “pride of place” as the most compelling new play of the current theatre season. (The play is reportedly slated to join Peter Morgan’s The Audience and Wolf Hall as one of a glut of royalty-themed British imports on Broadway this coming spring.)
To call Assassins, Stephen Sondheim’s dark, disturbing operetta, a “history play” might be considered perverse. But alongside the above-mentioned productions, it invites that categorization. We don’t have much of a tradition of the large-scaled history play in American drama (Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello, about FDR, and Robert Shenkkan’s All The Way, about LBJ, may qualify), so more’s the reason to take note of Sondheim’s bold assemblage of horrific historical figures on the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory stage on London’s South Bank. “Listen to the story, listen to the song / Every now and then a country goes a little wrong,” sings the Narrator, as Sondheim presents a collage of American assassins who have either attempted or succeeded to take lives of presidents from Abraham Lincoln to JFK.