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theatre review

Tom Rooney (left) and Graham Abbey take leading roles in the Stratford Festival’s Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption.Don Dixon

Breath of Kings: Written by William Shakespeare; conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey; directed by Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman. At the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

Rebellion: Richard II and Henry IV Part 1

Starring Tom Rooney and Jonathan Sousa

3.5 stars

Redemption: Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V

Starring Araya Mengesha and Graham Abbey

2 stars

It's the Henriad in a hurry. The Stratford Festival is presenting four of William Shakespeare's history plays in two sittings this season – an energetic enterprise that sees 20 actors cycle through more than 70 roles in a little under six hours.

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tackles Richard II and Henry IV, Part One, while Breath of Kings: Redemption covers Henry IV, Part Two and Henry V. Parts of it are breathtaking; others merely breathless.

While Shakespeare's saga concerns three royal rulers of England near the end of the Middle Ages, Breath of Kings is an example of modern power-sharing and collaboration between three creatives. Graham Abbey – who also stars as Henry of Bolingbroke, later Henry IV – is credited as conceiver, adapter and associate director. Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman are credited as co-directors. To make the script for this epic, Abbey has abridged Shakespeare's plays, rearranged scenes within them and even borrowed from other writers at times.

Indeed, Breath of Kings: Rebellion begins not with Shakespeare's words, but with a short scene taken from an Elizabethan play known as Woodstock (whose author remains anonymous). It depicts the murder of the 1st Duke of Gloucester (Wayne Best) while he is writing a letter to King Richard II pleading his loyalty. As Gloucester is strangled, Richard (Tom Rooney) is seen being given a ceremonial bath on the other side of the Tom Patterson stage, which has been configured in the round this season.

At the start of William Shakespeare's Richard II, Gloucester's mysterious (off-stage) death has brought noblemen Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray into conflict – and they have come before the king, seeking arbitration, each accusing the other of treason. Richard II first implores the noblemen to put aside their quarrel, then acquiesces to their demands for a duel, and then – a couple of scenes later – halts that fight to banish both men from England. This leads Henry – who has his banishment shortened by four years on a whim – to speak the line Stratford's epic takes its title from: "Four lagging winters and four wanton springs end in a word: such is the breath of kings."

In Abbey's adaptation of Shakespeare, however, the aforementioned action is all condensed into a single, quick scene – the aborted duel entirely cut. There's much of this abridgment in Breath of Kings – but I highlight this one, because it is no small alteration. It seriously changes our perception of King Richard II – and, by consequence, our perception of all the action that follows.

Richard, often depicted as capricious or inconsistent, here seems decisive and simply eager to avoid the pointless spilling of noble blood. And Henry appears more of an unjust usurper than ever when he returns from his banishment early to oppose Richard. This gives stronger reasons for the rebellions that Henry IV faces during his rule in the following plays – first led by the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams) and his son Hotspur (Jonathan Sousa), then by the Archbishop of York (Carly Street again). Indeed, in the second part of Breath of Kings, the rebels wear masks of Rooney's face – as if they are medieval forerunners of the Anonymous movement.

Tom Rooney is a fittingly spiritual Richard – his inner turmoil making him the only truly tragic character in this sequence of shows. Speaking verse with eloquence and insight, Rooney shows us the battles within this king – between petulance and philosophy, entitlement and enlightenment. In his deposition scene, he hands over his crown to Henry, but then keeps a fierce grip on it – at once rebellious and submissive.

If Rooney's remarkable performance anchors the first half of Breath of Kings: Rebellion, Jonathan Sousa commands the second with his spirited, youthful portrayal of the rebel Hotspur. He is self-righteous rage incarnate, rampaging around the stage in a neck tattoo and ignoring his elders, bringing a feeling of real danger into the room.

We get less forceful energy from Prince Hal – Henry IV's son – and his cohorts. An understated Araya Mengesha as the future Henry V is laid-back and mellow – a slacker satellite circling around the charismatic centre that is Geraint Wyn Davies's well-played Falstaff. (When Hal and Falstaff play-act at king and prince, father and son – they echo the staging of Richard's deposition, clutching both sides of a empty dish.)

Breath of Kings: Rebellion climaxes in one of the best battles scenes seen at Stratford, choreographed by John Stead. First, due to the gender-blind casting that (along with the diverse casting) pervades and enlivens the production, we get a fantastic all-female duel: Carly Street, a delight in all of her roles, having great fun as the scarred, screaming Scottish Earl of Douglas and mowing down Irene Poole's poor Sir Walter Blunt.

The main attraction, however, is Hal and Hotspur facing off with both sword and spear – cold and hot fronts colliding into a thunderous storm that made me nearly fall off my chair. Despite the huge difference in styles between the plays that comprise it, Breath of Kings: Rebellion felt complete – a call and response.

Things are less coherent in Breath of Kings: Redemption – in part by design. Anahita Dehbonehie's set comes apart in sections, while Yannik Larivée's costumes stop changing with each play and become a muddle of modern and medieval.

Henry IV, Part 2's rebellion seems a sad echo of the first – while the scenes amongst Hal's lowlife cohorts in Eastcheap feel like forced, fake jocularity until the return of Rooney as Justice Shallow, here a kind of Falstaff fanboy, hilariously overeager.

The emotional moments of this history play do not resonate, however – neither Henry IV's death, nor Henry V's rejection of his old pal Falstaff. Something in the relationships between these men was not established deeply enough – whether due to the abridgment of the dramas, or a trio of actors simply not connecting.

Only once rid of his father figures does Mengesha's Henry really rises to the occasion – and as he launches his invasion of France and is suitably stirring in public, while remaining melancholy in private. (Mikaela Davies – doing double duty as both the French prince Henry opposes and the French princess he marries – is a excellent adversary/romantic interest.)

But where is the "redemption" this Breath of Kings promises? Henry, our last king to breathe on this stage, threatens the city of Harfleur with "naked infants spitted upon pikes" – and orders his soldiers to commit a war crime and kill their prisoners.

Is the subtitle intended ironically? While Breath of Kings: Redemption has some clever staging, its interpretation of Shakespeare's Henriad becomes frustratingly unclear as it reaches its end.

Rooney returns once more to play the narrating Chorus, wearing Richard's robes – perhaps now doing in the last play, what he suggested he would do in the first: "Tell[ing] sad stories of the death of kings…"

But rather than tying any of that together visually or with more textual interventions, the six-hour journey ends on what seems like a tangent. A sequence of events has been told with clarity, but lost its emotional underpinnings and a strong sense of purpose along the way – perhaps the consequence of not having a single vision for the ambitious endeavour.

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