Kings of chaos: A review of a marathon of Shakespeare at the Guthrie

three still images taken from a play
The Guthrie Theater's "Henriad" opened on April 13. The three shows — "Richard II," "Henry IV" and "Henry V" — tell a large, interconnected story about the British Crown.
Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater and Dan Norman

The Guthrie had a few apartments near the theater a while back, tidy little spaces for touring artists. I imagine they still do. I don’t know whether they keep playwrights there, but I would think they would find a room for Shakespeare, a playwright who they produce so often he might as well just relocate to Minneapolis.

It’s nice to imagine Shakespeare wandering around the Mill District of Minneapolis between shows, sampling blistered shishito peppers at Zen Box Izakaya and following it with a bottle of Gosset Grande Reserve Brut Champagne at Milly’s.

Certainly Shakespeare should be in town for the current Guthrie offering, as it is, in Shakespeare’s words, a stuffed cloak-bag of guts. The theater is producing, in repertory, a collection of four of the Bard’s plays telling an interconnected story of three English kings.

The plays are “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” — a Henriad, if not the only Henriad. There is another version that would be more ambitious (to the point of impossibility) that would also include “Henry VI, Part 1,” “Henry VI, Part 2,” “Henry VI, Part 3” and “Richard III.” Frankly, this would be too much Henry.

What we have now is exactly enough Henry.

Although I took it in one huge dose of Henry. I watched it on one of the theater’s two marathon runs, when they perform the entire series in one day. (The final marathon will be May 18.)

Doing so is challenging, both to the intellect and the posterior, but especially critically. How to write about four plays in a single review — even if the Guthrie has slightly simplified the task by combining both “Henry IV” plays into a single show?

The solution is to write about the event as one very long play telling of three generations of English kings, although it will also be a long review. Find a comfortable seat.

Sad stories of the death of kings

First we meet Richard II, a bizarre and doomed windlestraw with a useless and supernatural belief in the divine right of kings. Next there is his cousin and usurper, Henry IV, who parades as an honorable man but grabs the throne when it becomes available.

Finally, there is the callow youth Prince Hal, who grows into Henry V, who might be a great military leader or might be a war criminal — more on that later.

Let’s begin with the awesome problem of staging so many Henrys. Director Joseph Haj and his artistic team have produced a neat and visually spectacular solution: They have a central set on a vast turntable, a minimalist structure that looks like a collection of Medieval steel bars.

Turned one way, it is a throne room, then it spins and becomes a tavern. Cast members will rotate onto the stage, and then rotate off again. Were this not Shakespeare, it would make for an especially exciting amusement park ride.

Richard II is the first to rotate on, played by Tyler Michaels King as a bewildered fop, strutting the stage in cloaks of precious metal, surrounded by a coterie of infuriating flibbertigibbets, constantly seeming on the verge of a tantrum.

He’s an odd character, oddly played and oddly sympathetic. Richard became king at age 10 and seems to have a child’s understanding of the position, mostly informed by fairy tales.

When the more practical Henry Bolingbroke rotates on, mistreated by Richard and played with gusts of outraged honor by William Sturdivant, the childlike Richard is helpless against him. At one point Richard lies on the ground, begging the earth of England to save him.

People perform on stage
The plays, "Richard II," "Henry IV" and "Henry V" have gone through edits to make the shows more manageable, including combining Henry IV parts one and two into a singular play.
Courtesy of The Guthrie Theater and Dan Norman

He spends the rest of the play in a protracted, poetic identity crisis, both relieved that somebody came to take the crown from him and unsure of who he is without it.

He died young, they all did. Shakespeare gives Richard a more pointed death than the actual historical Richard, whose life ended at 33, perhaps starved to death by his successor. Shakespeare has him a victim of either a terrible miscommunication or an act of stochastic terrorism. Either way, the turntable spins and it is adieu Richard.

Bolingbroke doesn’t have a better time of it. Shakespeare understood that breaches in power are never resolved easily, and so the usurper king spends most of his life battling an uprising from disgruntled rebels including his brother and nephew.

But the greater agony in his life rotates onto the stage next, his juvenile delinquent son Hal, who spends his time drinking in pubs and getting into criminal hijinks with one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comic characters, Falstaff.

Hal is played by Daniel José Molina, and his Hal is prankish and somewhat bullying, especially to Falstaff, played with wounded bluster by Jimmy Kieffer.

Henry dies young, they all do. He was 45, felled by illness, and his kingship in this production has aged him into having a white beard and the jittery mannerisms of a methuselah. He lives long enough to see both the rebels routed and his son mature, and then he expires painfully in bed and rotates away.

Hal, now Henry V, promptly rejects his old companions. His criminal urges now matured and granted vast power, he invades France. Molina’s performance here alternates between his early boyish charm and a chilling coldness.

He is triumphant at the play’s end, overcoming his French opposition, presented as boastful Eurotrash in unexpectedly modern haute couture. He also marries the daughter of the French king, cementing his claim to the French throne.

It would not end so well for the historic Henry V. He died young — they all do — at age 35. Shakespeare’s kings rarely have enviable lives. Instead, their perambulations on English soil are often fast, short and frustrating — sometimes literally maddening.

Haj approaches the four plays as a single long story. Each play ends with a teaser for the next play, and each begins with the same image: a king placing a crown on his head and taking the throne.

But Haj changes his direction from play to play. The changes are subtle, but also feel like they thrust us through a thousand years of staging Shakespeare.

Staging the Henriad

I have seen so many Shakespeare plays that are set in unexpected eras and overseen by visionary directors that I have often wondered what it would be like to see the plays performed in a presentational style that was long favored, now long out of favor.

In this style, actors position themselves into neat stage pictures, often with the lead actor stage center, sometimes taking poses inspired by statues or Renaissance paintings, declaiming the dialogue.

Much of “Richard II” is done like this, a style that feels both dated and somehow avant-garde; its very creakiness feels appropriate to the Medieval sensibilities of the play’s boy king, and it works.

The approach foregrounds Shakespeare’s language, which here is among his most florid, often written in heroic couplets. It turns out Shakespeare doesn’t require radical reinterpretations — it’s enough to just stage his language.

“Henry IV,” in the meanwhile, is almost entirely set at angles, as if to represent the world of a king spun sideways by both a civil war and a dissolute prince. And when we get to “Henry V,” the staging becomes even more modern.

The set is suddenly an abstract representation of a ruined France, where vast groups of warriors roam the stage, sometimes in unison, sometimes breaking off to boast or battle or commit atrocities.

Haj here seems to be referencing the direction of his predecessor, Tyrone Guthrie, who loved to put huge casts on thrust stages, dynamically shifting between individual and unison action. Haj is skilled in this style; it’s thrilling.

But directing isn’t just placing groups of actors in front of sets and moving them about in interesting ways. It is instead staging an interpretation of the script, and here is where I think Haj is most interesting.

Shakespeare is rarely staged in entirety nowadays, and he is as much interpreted in the edit as in the performance. Haj has made several edits — and refused to make edits — that make this production especially sharp.

Actor Daniel Molina, who plays King Henry V
Actor Daniel José Molina, who plays King Henry V in The Guthrie Theater's production of "Henry V," sits on actor Dustin Bronson during a rehearsal for "Henry V" on Feb. 14.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

Because in Haj’s telling, these are not sympathetic tales. The kings on stage at the Guthrie are wild, murderous and often bizarre. They rule over an England they can barely control, and want to control other kingdoms they don’t understand.

This Henriad is filled with untranslated foreign tongues, which the kings cannot fathom, and yet they claim to be the God-ordained sovereigns of these lands. And even their Englishness is uncertain — in a scene frequently edited from productions, Henry V declares himself Welsh.

Beyond that, these kings are vicious. Hal’s needling of Falstaff feels unnecessarily cruel, and Falstaff’s own misbehavior is elided — he is less a loveable criminal here than a ribald prankster.

He ends up heartbroken when Hal becomes king and loses interest in his old mates. The formerly brash prince now is more interested in locating an unfathomable justification to invade France.

Henry V is especially unsympathetic here, threatening the French with abdominal acts against civilians, going in disguise among his men to argue that kings are not accountable to their subjects and personally strangling a former friend to playact at being a moral soldier.

These are strong directorial choices, especially as Shakespeare’s plays, in other edits, have been used to tell a different story — one of the tragic majesty of kings, the power of national identity and the honorableness of war.

We wouldn’t want to be the kings at the Guthrie, nobody should ever want to be a Shakespeare king. But, in this telling, we also wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them.

Any Henry, it turns out, is one Henry too many.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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