While Shakespeare is always in fashion for theatergoers, some of his plays are more fashionable than others. There are perennial favorites, like Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet, but others’ fortunes rise and fall on a sea of fickle tastes and the economic challenges of staging theater, like King John, Timon of Athens, and Pericles. So while the history plays are known to be one of the main genres in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, audiences are not always aware that the Bard composed an eight-play history cycle that begins with the occasionally seen Richard II and ends with the popular Richard III—though the plays are typically thought of in isolation. The eight plays can be grouped in two tetralogies, one composed in the early 1590s near the beginning of his writing career, and the other near the end of that same decade when he had become an established dramatist. The plays are, in the order Shakespeare is generally believed to have written them, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.
It’s an epic undertaking for a professional theater company to stage all eight plays in repertory, with the plays presented sequentially in consecutive performances. But now the Alexandria-based Brave Spirits Theatre is living up to its name. Its Richard II opened in January as part of a tetralogy the company is calling “The King’s Shadow,” which works through the two Henry IV plays (the second of which just opened) and will conclude with Henry V, opening on March 12.
The following season, titled “The Queen’s Storm,” will open with the rarely performed Henry VI Part 1 on New Year’s Eve, followed by parts two and three, and concluding with Richard III. Audiences will be able to see the entire eight-play cycle in repertory in June and July of 2021. All shows are presented at The Lab at Convergence in Alexandria.
Brave Spirits artistic director Charlene V. Smith recounts how the inspiration came to her while traveling abroad: “In 2008, I went to London and saw Michael Boyd’s production of all eight plays over four days at the Royal Shakespeare Company,” she says. Boyd, who was at the time RSC’s artistic director, had revived the company’s spin on the cycle in This England: The Histories at the Roundhouse in the Chalk Farm neighborhood.
Smith, who will be directing the first four plays, says that “planning in earnest began four years ago with a spreadsheet.” She adds, “I had to figure out how do I rehearse and perform eight plays on a non-Equity schedule before casting” (the Actors’ Equity Association is the labor union covering theater actors and stage managers), while also fitting her plan to the availability of Convergence’s theater space. She elected for a six-month audition process to find the right actors and ensure they could arrange their schedules for the two-year commitment. Fundraising began in 2017.
Fidelity to documented historical facts is rarely of primary concern to the audience for historical drama. Histories may be escapism, or they may speak to more contemporary concerns.
The 1590s were a time of great political anxiety for the Londoners who were the audience for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theater troupe for whom Shakespeare wrote. Elizabeth I was queen and she and her court had formed a powerful state, but she was also aging, and without an heir, there was no clear line of succession. It was not merely a question of who would claim the crown, but the character of the monarch, and the means of succession: Would it be peaceful and orderly transition, widely recognized as legitimate? Or would it be by insurrection, civil war, or assassination, leaving the claims of any victor contested either openly or covertly? Even if the eight plays might have been viewed by those in a later era as an entertaining exercise in teaching English history, or a patriotic pageant that flattered the kingdom’s ruling class, Shakespeare was also playing out different scenarios of what might follow Elizabeth’s reign.
It’s hard to argue that the United States is not currently going through its own period of political anxiety. It’s a feeling especially palpable in the Washington metropolitan area, where politics and governance are dominant local industries. Smith explains that when planning began “we knew we would have presidential elections” and whatever hopes some had in 2016, “we didn’t have a female president then and still don’t have one now.”
Though we don’t have a monarchy, Smith says, she does see the history cycle plays as a way to address the American political system, particularly “our myth of meritocracy, that people can earn their way into power, and our myth of American democracy, when we have questions of who is voting for whom, and the problems of gerrymandering and political families.”
It’s not unprecedented for a staging of the history plays to be in conversation with contemporary politics. Witness the many Henry Vs that reflected shifting perspectives on the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early 2000s, sometimes with explicit comparisons between King Henry and George W. Bush. But Smith is addressing a larger context with Brave Spirits’ staging. “The dramaturgy team has thought about how 87 years of English history could map onto 87 years of American history,” she says. “There are no one-to-one analogies; there are greater complexities.” Audience members should not expect Shakespeare’s characters standing in for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders. Instead, Smith plans to explore larger shifts in American society using “casting opportunities to show a shift in positions of power for women and people of color.”
The approach, however, does lead to rethinking the way certain characters and scenes are traditionally presented. Already Smith has discovered that. “People are surprised that Richard II has so much humor in it,” she says. “Once Bolingbroke [Henry IV] takes the crown the structure of the play changes.” Some scenes are a “funhouse mirror reflection” of what happened in an earlier act. “There’s a difference between wanting the job and having the job.” She also observes that in recent years, Henry V, the last play of this season’s “The King’s Shadow” series, “is usually staged in a pro-Henry manner, but the play tricks you. The chorus is always praising Henry, but we see what he does onstage—he goes to a country that is not his to take things that do not belong to him.” Additionally, Smith notes, despite the onstage friction between the different ethnic groups of the British Isles, “there’s an insistence on national coherence. When you dissect St Crispin’s Day Speech, it exposes class issues.”
Unlike the RSC repertory she saw in London, in which Boyd directed the three Henry VI plays and Richard III while leaving the other four plays to three other directors, each of whom chose to stage their plays with radically different aesthetics, Smith wanted audiences to experience the Brave Spirits repertory as a coherent eight-play historical epic with a consistent sensibility. Smith could accomplish this easily with Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V, which she is directing, but since it was also her ambition to play Queen Margaret, the powerful consort, and later, widow of Henry VI, she would have to hand the director’s chair to someone else.
Next season’s part of the repertory, “The Queen’s Storm,” is directed by Jordan Friend, who also contributes to that consistent aesthetic as composer and music director for the entire cycle. Throughout Richard II for instance, the king is greeted by the Latin chanting of “Ave Rex” (Hail King), a common refrain from late-medieval liturgical music in which “king” is an epithet for Jesus, but the audience hears it as a metaphor for first Richard and then Henry. Friend says that he made an “intentional use of liturgical music to signify Richard II’s claim of divine right. He’s the king with the greatest religious drive.” It’s a claim that his usurper Henry IV is uncomfortable with, sparking what Friend describes as “a progression of music secularization, taking on a populist trajectory” in subsequent plays.
Friend is also the artistic director of 4615 Theatre Company, which stages performances across the D.C. area. He previously worked with Smith as her assistant director on Brave Spirits’ 2018 production of Coriolanus, and later that year in 4615’s production of Macbeth he directed Smith as Lady Macbeth. As Smith and Friend discussed the upcoming repertory and how Friend could serve the project, he asked to direct the second half of the cycle. Running his own theater company while also making a two-year commitment to Brave Spirits’ history repertory has stretched his role as an artistic leader, forcing him to delegate responsibility to others. “I’m going to structure 4615’s season around this to some degree,” he says. “It actually nudges us out of the nest a bit—pushing the company so that it can operate more in my absence.”
Friend relished not just the opportunity to direct the three Henry VI plays, which are rarely performed in their entirety, but in his words, chronicle a period in which “governments change as often as Bethesda restaurants.”
But to direct the full story arc for Margaret, who is best known as the widow in Richard III, a grotesque figure who curses the now squabbling factions who deposed her husband, her full humanity must be understood. “There’s a gatekeeper-ism with how we perceive Margaret,” he says, noting that the audience often interprets the queen in the gaze of her antagonists. “We aim to catch these moments more clearly instead of identifying with how other characters see her.” Margaret’s story will be one of the vehicles by which Brave Spirits will showcase that “as marginalized people take more ‘King-adjacent’ roles and get closer to power, the resistance from the establishment gets more extreme.”
Friend thinks about how “The Queen’s Storm” may be shaped by the results of the upcoming general election. “I’m in rehearsals for Richard III during the election,” he says. “We’ll see if it’s history or truth. I hope that I’m not predicting the future.”
To Do This Week is your twice-weekly email roundup of arts and cultural events. It’s the perfect way to know what’s going on, and subscribing is a great way to support us.