Theatre Reflections – A final farewell to the RSC’s King & Country at BAM (New York)

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It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this reflection on the final King and Country cycle. Previously I have reviewed all of the individual plays since they began with Richard II in 2013, as well as reflecting on the cycle at the Barbican this January. However, as my recent New York trip was largely scheduled around seeing the last dates of these Histories, it seemed fitting to look back one last time and also comment on the differences, both in my experience and in the performances, when seeing them during the New York run.

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BAM Harvey Theatre (Photo by: E. Kaufman Harvey)

I find it thrilling that despite so many performances under their belts (the final King and Country tally was 505), the company was still trying new things and for anyone who’s sen them a few times it’s a wonderful added extra. It’s also fascinating to experience the plays with an audience who have much less opportunity to see live Shakespeare than we do here in the UK and to see first hand how this affects their reactions to the material.

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Jasper Britton & David Tennant in Richard II (Photo by: Keith Pattison)

From my time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Harvey Theatre, I’d safely say that the largely American audiences loved these productions and having the RSC come to them. In fact there was a buzz that I didn’t feel at the Barbican or to some extent even at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This is perhaps largely due to the RSC in New York being more of an event, seeing as they haven’t been regularly and the audiences were excited to see this famous theatre company bringing Shakespeare overseas. Thinking about it logically, these were the perfect plays to succeed there. The more traditional rather than modern settings and the English history (albeit Shakespeare’s version) seemed, from the people we spoke with, to be exactly what they imagined the Royal Shakespeare Company to be doing.

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Antony Sher, Sam Marks & Alex Hassell in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

BAM was an ideal theatre for the plays too. Built in 1904 as the Majestic Theatre, the BAM Harvey Theatre’s auditorium is weathered and has a old-age feel; paint flaked walls and ceilings really added to the sense that a little bit of English history had come back to life in a venue of the past. I also really liked the rake of BAM, with a great view from every seat I had (it’s a bit like the Trafalgar Studios rake for those that know it). This again meant a slightly different viewing experience than I’d had in Stratford-Upon-Avon or London.

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Matthew Needham (centre), Antony Byrne (left), Sean Chapman (right) in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

The plays themselves were just a strong as they had been and as far as Henry IV is concerned, this was my favourite time watching it (having seen it once in Stratford in 2014 and then once during each of the two Barbican runs). At a book event earlier in the week, Antony Sher had commented how he felt the US audiences were listening and reacting better to the plays and on experiencing them for myself, I have to agree with him. Lines which I’ve not heard get a reaction before in all four of the plays (but especially Henry IV) found one at BAM. I heard quite a few people there saying how they had read the plays before coming and perhaps we are so used to Shakespeare in the UK that we aren’t as focussed as an audience who has less chance to see them live. In turn, this clearly had an effect on the performances, especially Mr Sher, who seemed happier and more at ease at BAM. Perhaps coming to the end of the run played a part, but you could see that he was enjoying and feeding off the audience reactions.

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Alex Hassell in Henry V (Photo by: Stephanie Berger)

I’m sure it’s no surprise to regular readers that I saw Richard II the most since 2013. I’d been at the first preview in October 2013 and I loved the idea of seeing the very last performance, especially as in my view, this is a production which has only gone from strength to strength over time. It was in Richard II where I picked up on little changes, the most obvious being in my favourite scene – Flint Castle. Having seen David Tennant play the scene with both Oliver Rix and now Sam Marks (as well as Oli and Sam together during the understudy performance), it was wonderful that they were still experimenting even at the end of the run. I saw Richard II twice at BAM and both times, instead of dodging the crown when Richard moves to place it on his head, Sam Marks stayed still and Richard II did indeed crown Aumerle. Once Tennant then removed it with a sigh (it’s Richard’s burden, not his cousin’s) and the second time Marks removed it and with sadness gave it back to Richard. It wasn’t a big change, but it was something subtle and lovely to see played in a slightly different way after all this time.

All the company were on fine form in New York and special mention to Evelyn Miller going on in place of Jennifer Kirby for the final Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. They should all be hugely proud of the King and Country cycle and it was very special to be at the final Henry V to see the 505th and final performance. I’m sure after such a welcome, it won’t be long before the RSC is back in New York and you never know, I may just have to tag along too!

You can purchase the RSC’s King and Country plays on DVD from all the usual stockists. As the DVDs are region free, it’s worth considering buying them from US Amazon where the 4 play set is only $40!

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