Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption”

When the news came out that Graham Abbey had been working on an adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they were going to modify the Tom Patterson Theatre especially for the production, I was thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting than getting to see a brand new piece and in a totally different way than it would normally be staged. Breath of Kings exceeded my expectations and gave me a totally different view of Shakespeare’s histories; it made me want to see the full versions immediately!

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tells the story of Henry Bolingbroke and his rise to power over King Richard II, using the plays Richard II for its first act and Henry V Part 1 for its second act. A political thriller for the first act turns into a bloody battle for supremacy by the second, making for an amazing buildup to the final battle. Breath of Kings: Redemption focuses more on young Henry, or Prince Hal, and his rise to power through Henry V Part II and Henry V. Once again culminating in an epic battle, this piece was fascinating and fast paced as young Hal goes from miscreant to King overnight.

The most immediate thing that struck me was the stage. Not only was it redesigned to be theatre in the round (which I LOVE) but for Rebellion there was a thick layer of mulch covering the stage. This mulch would be pushed, dragged, and raked all over the stage. I loved how when the play needed to take place indoors the mulch was pushed aside with the boxes to create a hallway-like path. But for me the best part was after the battle scene, the mulch had been spread back out over the stage, so there was this amazing map of the battle left on the floor after the actors had left, I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked from above. For Redemption, the stage was the bare white that you could see underneath the mulch, but as the battle of Agincourt was waged, the floor came up in these massive, jagged pieces which left the earth turned up and ragged by the end of the play; a torn world which Hal will be responsible to put back together. Paired with amazing costuming and lighting, the play was a visual spectacular and every detail and movement carried such weight and purpose.

The cast was massive, with a whole host of Stratford’s best populating the stage. Helmed by Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Tom Rooney (Richard II), and Araya Mengesha (Henry V) the level of passion in these performances breathes such life into these pieces and makes them the memorable experience that they are. Richard II was such a fascinating character, the way we watch him succumb to Bolingbroke and his men, then seeing Bolingbroke, who used to wield amazing power, get so ill was heartbreaking. The whole time you’re watching their enemies try to rise against them, while others rally to their side. I had previously seen Henry V in full, and so knew of the death of Falstaff, but what I hadn’t realized was that he died of a broken heart; it broke my heart to see Hal cast off his old friends, miscreants though they may be, in favour of being the “king” he thinks he has to be. He rejects their company almost immediately instead of helping them as he’s now able to do. This deeply saddened me, and actually made me watch the second act of Redemption with a totally different gaze than I had when I saw Henry V. I was also thrilled that the Chorus in Henry V was kept, the Chorus has some of the most beautiful poetry in Shakespeare’s cannon, and the play would have felt incomplete without it.

One of the elements that was particularly interesting was how many men were portrayed by women. It brought the dynamic to a totally different level to both pieces, and seeing these women in power roles was inspiring. It confirmed the level of innovation and expertise that was poured into this show and made it an experience I’ll never forget.

I was absolutely blown away by this production. I cannot begin to recommend it enough. The plays close September 24th, so catch it before it closes!!