Shakespeare’s History Plays at the Guthrie

The Guthrie’s staging of three of William Shakespeare’s history plays (Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V) offers far more than just a monumental theatrical bonanza (we’re lucky if we get more than one of the Bard’s plays per season): the juxtaposition of the three distinct plays allows audiences to witness some of the true genius of English’s greatest playwright.  When viewing any single play, one gets only a superficial look at the story and the craft used to tell it.  While each of these plays is exquisite in their own right, it is only when they are played side-by-side that we can see how the very means of telling of the stories reflects the nature of the characters and events taking place within the story of the Plantagenet kings.  

In Richard II–played with remarkable range and tenderness by Tyler Michaels King–we see a tyrannical monarch steeped in the vestments and heraldry of the office and deeply convinced of his own divinity, only to be torn asunder by an upstart with the love of the people and the nobility on his side.  Richard II is as much about the fall of King Richard as it is the rise of Henry Bolingbroke and what it means to be a king.  William Sturdivant plays the strong-willed Henry with great zeal and intensity, especially as his ascension becomes assured.  As King Richard grapples with his fall from power, we see him explore and ultimately find his humanity, and in so doing, achieve a return to grace (if not the throne) that is sublime to behold.  Told entirely in verse, this play is the most formal in tone and structure of the three and reflects the solemnity of the events, but also the power and magnitude of the monarchy.  

Henry IV is as different a play from the staid, structural Richard II as the new king, Henry Bolingbroke is from the overthrown King Richard.  Loud, boisterous, and full of life, we see the king’s son and heir, Prince Hal, reveling in a lowly Eastcheap tavern with a band of rabble who offer a stark contrast from the decorum and intrigues of the royal court.  Providing welcome comic relief, the jovial and ignominious John Fallstaff is at times an object of ridicule, and at others a father figure with deep loyalties to the young prince.  Originally written as two separate plays, Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj and dramaturg Carla Steen combined Parts 1 and 2 into a single piece for this run (as much to save time as to spare the actors).  This makes for a leaner, more finely tuned product overall, but the tone and soul of the plays stays the same.  Later, as the rebellion is quashed and the action turns to the line of succession, we see King Henry in failing health and Prince Hal transformed by the weight of what he must take on as King.  Again, Sturdivant plays Henry IV, but this time as a more weary, regretful monarch, particularly when it comes to his wayward son.  Daniel Jose Molina plays his transitional role with relish.  Watching him is a delight!  In the early acts, Molina can command a scene with just his posture and facial expressions, and he puts this gift to work as his character grows from a prodigal prince into a stately king.

And just like that, the stage is set for Henry V. Arguably the most accessible of the three plays, there is little political intrigue and the audience is guided from the start by a Greek chorus that sets the stage and acts as a narrator throughout.  While such a chorus would normally be expected to expound on the hubris of kings, with little in the way of political intrigue or moral dilemmas, Henry V is all about Hal’s continued rise from rapscallion prince without the expected tragic downfall.  The king, now firmly in control of the throne sets forth to France to show he is no dilettante pretender, culminating in the famous Battle of Agincourt, in which the weary, outnumbered English rout the French army on their own turf.  Molina returns in the lead role as Henry V and does it every bit of justice it deserves.  If you go to only one of the three plays, see this for the Crispin’s Day speech alone.

Audiences have multiple opportunities from now through May 25 to take in this once-in-a-generation event, and unlike the recent solar eclipse, it doesn’t even matter if the weather is cloudy!  You can purchase tickets to a single play, or a package for all three plays, including one more single-day three-show marathon on May 18.  I cannot recommend enough that you take advantage of this opportunity to see this extraordinary theatrical undertaking.  Not only do you get the chance to see three fantastic performances in rapid succession (unheard of outside of a Shakespeare festival), you get to see a cast of fantastic players in rotating repertory (meaning they all take on other roles as their characters shuffle off this mortal coil), making it feel even more like what audiences would have seen in the 16th century.  Get tickets now!


Photo by Dan Norman