Review: King and Country Cycle @ Barbican ****

Once more unto the…no, wait, I’ve already used that pun…

Basically, it’s the final part of my look at the Barbican’s King and Country Cycle and how I would rate it overall.

First and foremost: it’s an incredible theatrical experience. And now I’ve seen it this way, I can’t ever imagine seeing the Histories as single shows. This way makes so much more sense! The flow works so well and brings a completely different reading and interpretation to the text. We witness transformations of characters: from the decline of Henry IV to the climbing Henry V. Our loyalty to characters become more complicated, particularly Hotspur and Northumberland after seeing their risks in Richard II. Presenting the plays in this manner can make us consider them in a whole new light and that’s a rare thing with Shakespeare.

David Tennant as Richard II, in Richard II. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know the standard of acting throughout the production is incredibly high. On the whole. Richard II stand out performances are Sam Marks’ heart breaking Aumerle and of course Tennant’s impish, flawed Richard. Henry IV Part 1 sees Britton shine in the role of Henry IV even as his character declines and the bright star of Matthew Needham’s Hotspur ascend. Britton makes his final appearance as the ailing Henry IV in a performance which brought me to tears in Henry IV Part 2. Here, Hassell truly stars to come into his own though it’s his ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech in Henry V which proves a highlight of the run.

Antony Sher as Falstaff, Sam Marks as Poins, and Alex Hassell as Hal, in Henry IV Part 1. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

Credit must go to Gregory Doran for directing the four plays, back to back, and in particular breathing new life into reinterpreting the text of Richard II. And even more credit if not more to the actors: Jasper Britton and Alex Hassell led three of the shows in the run, so Tennant got off lightly! And equal credit to the ensemble, most of whom seemed to appear in all four shows and whose energy never wavered.

Jasper Britton as Henry IV, and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, in Henry IV Part 2. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

Now, you may think I’m being a tad biased. And you’d be right. In case you couldn’t tell from my blog/my image at the top of the page or my job, I love Shakespeare. So the prospect of seeing four plays back to back was amazing. In reality: it was a tad draining. Even for me. It is quite mentally exhausting and the lull of Henry IV Part 2 did put me off. Plus Barbican isn’t the easiest place to get back from for me, which meant we did miss the post-show talks. Maybe doing them before the show that day, or even before the show the next day would have made more sense? But I totally get from a production perspective why they did them that way.


Alex Hassell as King Henry V, in Henry V. Photo © Keith Pattison

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is while it is an incredible experience, there’s a reason we don’t do this with every History. As much as I would love to see other theatres adopt this way of playing Shakespeare, it wouldn’t be feasible. The planning on the theatre’s part, the time, the exhaustion for the actors and audience. But that’s what makes these Cycles so brilliant: when they do them back to back, it’s worth it and it works so well.

Verdict: the theatrical event of the year (thus far).


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