Breath of Kings Rebellion – On The Run 2016The Tom Patterson theatre is great; it allows for fully in-the-round staging (or in-the-rectangle, rather) and it’s big enough that the kings aren’t undermined by a crowd too small for their thundering speeches but it’s small enough that we can see them up close for the men they are underneath the crown. I wouldn’t wish Graham Abbey‘s wonderful two-part history cycle into any other space at the Stratford Festival but history, politics and basic ticket sale math dictate that the season’s most heavily advertised flagship productions be festival theatre fare which means that the financially sturdy but artistically struggling company is, once again but this season more than others, using the wrong calling card.

Photography by David Hou
Photography by David Hou

It should be this- a bold but classic adaptation of some of Shakespeare’s best-loved but less-frequently-produced plays; something that’s at once a world premiere and a mandate text;  a production that showcases beloved festival favourites and overdue fresh blood in equal measure. This is the production Stratford should be hanging its hat on because “Rebellion” (Richard II & Henry IV, part 1), in the hands of visionary Weyni Mengesha, is the best-directed Shakespeare at the festival in five years and Tom Rooney’s unforgettable Richard II (so clear, so unexpectedly funny) is among the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

I’m not quite so effusive about all of it- “Redemption”, conflating slightly less entrancing texts (Henry IV, part 2 & Henry V) and directed with more visual flare but less coherent honesty, lacks the magic of its predecessor despite Araya Mengesha’s moving portrayal of his character’s growing pains from Hal to Henry (it’s a small, superficial thing but they braid his hair and he’s a whole new man). Geraint Wyn Davies’ Falstaff gives us nothing unexpected and his eventual banishment (the generally agreed-upon highlight of the otherwise hijinks-heavy Henry IV.2) is glossed over almost as badly as the heartbreaking condemnation of Bardolph (my personal highlight of the otherwise big-speech-heavy Henry V)- but Breath of Kings shines so brightly at its best that even its low points seem better than most of the season.

The production (which is really four plays presented as two plays at the cost of two tickets) is nearly perfectly cast and smartly directed with the technical and design team keeping excellent pace. Costume designer Yannik Larivée’s knitwear is gorgeous, though his mixed period aesthetic sometimes seemed out of place; set designer Anahita Dehbonehie’s impermanent soil to fractured rock set design is far more thematically impactful. John Stead has choreographed the best stage fights I’ve seen outside of an indie theatre in literally years and handed them to an exceptional ensemble that actually performs them at believable speed, a rarity at Stratford and perhaps a side effect of the company finally taking a chance on young talent in young roles.

It’s the perfect forward thinking production for a company that’s traditional at heart. Bringing fresh eyes to the heart of the festival’s mandate, Breath of Kings is pushing Stratford forward without pulling them away from what they do best. If only they could put it on their bus ads.